There are two expressions I do not want to hear at my funeral, or any other, ever again! Here is the first: “We are not here to grieve; we are here to celebrate a life.”
I first heard it said by a smarmy God-botherer at a funeral in Christchurch back in the 1990s. I was instantly furious! In the coffin that day was a young man, barely 30. Arguably one of the world’s best modern dancers – or he would have become that. Already admired and praised and popular in Sydney, still emerging, still growing more amazing by the day; his life abruptly terminated by an inconveniently positioned power-pole beside the highway exactly where he lost control of his rental car.
He had come back for a holiday, and BANG: his life was over. We all felt the same: shocked, broken, horrified, stricken with irreparable grief. And this clod gets up and starts with this corny one-liner.
There was a surge of fury throughout the packed-out room.
It got worse. Knowing nothing about the deceased, the Rev. Ballantyne pushed on with a potted history of the Deceased’s younger years (his school records, would you believe) presumably extracted from an aunt or similar – someone without a single clue as to where in life her nephew actually got to. This dribbled on for agonising minutes, revealing just how much this smug prick didn’t know. He knew squat!
Then an angry young man stood up, in a raging fury – but props to him he spoke coherently and with passion, about how the Deceased was actualy the greatest dancer that Sydney had problably ever seen – “and could we please talk about THAT?”
Props to Ballantyne – he handed the funeral over to the angry mob. One by one they rose to their feet and spoke with ripping grief about the lovely man they had only just lost. How brilliantly he danced. His personality. THE MASSIVE LOSS this was to the world of dance and the wider Sydney arts community.
The funeral surged onwards. It became raw and beautiful and honest. Expressive! People were calling out … not ‘Halleluyah!’ but like “Yeah!”, “Hell yeah!” “So true!” “Me too!”
It was amazing, and heart-wrenching, and drenched in grief, and yes: it was also a (badly-timed/way-too-soon) ‘celebration’ of an abruptly dead genius.
Ballantyne then wrapped it up with his pre-set funeral-order, delivered his final words and strode dramatically down the aisle and into the foyer where about twenty latecomers were attending. (As mentioned, it was packed.) And I was there, and once clear of the chapel I saw him relax his pompous ceremonial posture and breath a sigh of relief. And to my eye I saw a very-self-congratulatory smile. Smug-satisfaction. I was no one to judge people quickly, but he was the first to earn my utter contempt.
The other expression I loath at funerals is “A Life Well-Lived”.
Sometimes undoubtedly true, but at other times I sense it to be dripping with white-wash & denial. It’s too slick; too perfect. What’s missing is the very idea that just possibly this person was actually human. That they did, at one or two (dozen) points in their journey, fuck up. That what we saw was a whole series of compromises. A sequential string of Plan-Bs. Second-bests. Fumbled passes. Fudged parenting. Emotional disconnections.
I’m reminded here of my own father. I chose not to go. I chose not to share the same room as my step-mother: the one who engineered things so that I was not informed of my fathers’s three weeks in hospice, denying me the chance to come to his side, and ensured I was not informed until the day before his funeral. My name was not on the list of his children – the customary acknowledgement given to the bereaved descendents. What a bitch that woman was!
I’m sure a lot of things were said about Don – all in praise. And nothing about how massively he fucked things up. Nothing about his war record except his highest rank: Flight-Sergeant in the RNZAF. Nothing about how he pulled his triggers and shot three Australians; his only confirmed ‘kill’ in an active service that lasted a bare 5 weeks. Nor the failed first marriage, his abusive power-and-control stuff upon my mother, or the methodical alienation of his first four children thereafter.
Nope. He was just this Great Guy. The Funny Man.
“Never speak ill of the Dead.” What are we doing here? What is the pretense? That all the dumb shit someone does; the abuses, the rape, the insensitivity and racism and normal human imperfections and failings, it’s all swept under the carpet? Because it’s not. It lives on.
“Leave a Legacy.” And we all do. And it’s supposed to be all shiny and beneficial, but the legacy that most of us carry on with is one of being damaged; of continuing to harbour our stewing hatreds, our unspoken hurts, the armour we had to build and the missiles we still hold ready.
Perhaps some raw honesty at funerals might go some way towards burying at least some of that ugly legacy, right then and there. It’s not ‘speaking ill of the dead’. It is speaking Truth of the dead. No-one is a saint. Every one of us dies imperfect. We all fuck up.
Please speak ill of the dead. Acknowledge the entire spectrum. Ask how someone could have gone from an innocent baby to a sociopathic arsehole. Inquire into the mechanisms that kept spreading the damage, and maybe, among you, united for a little while by grief, maybe some sort of healing can take place. An insight gained. A knee-jerk defensive mechanism forever, and finally, laid to rest.
Let’s practice this. Let’s leave a legacy of Healing, rather than one of Hurt.