On Funerals

“Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship”

This may seem to be a gruesome topic for these pandemic days. One of the many impacts of COVID, however, is the extreme limitations placed on funerals. Once COVID has passed, we may need to find creative ways to say goodbye to those who passed during the times when funerals could not held

     I’d grown up with death. I had two sisters, both of whom had died of spina bifida.

They were present in one way or another for most of my life. They taught me a lot. In each of their passings, my parents taught me a lot as well.

      Each parent’s death was a very different experience. From diagnosis of cancer to her death was only three weeks in my mother’s case. My father’s walk, on the other hand was long and slow, marked by strokes and dementia. I lost mother all at once and quickly. I lost my father in inches over a long period of time

     I was 46 at the time my mother died and so had attended more than a few funerals by then. Most of the early funerals were for relatives, to include my maternal grandfather. Many of these early funerals were held at O’Donnell’s Funeral Home in Dunmore. Typically, there would be a day or two for “visitation”. The early funerals at least would have elements of Irish wakes. The women would be seated in the room with the deceased. The men would be in a room in the back which also just happened to have some bottles of whiskey. The women would weep. The men would drink. That was my first learning about dealing with death.

     When I went back home to see my mother at the end, I offered to help my dad set up funeral arrangements. I’d told my mother I was going to go to O’Donnell’s and she said “Oh yes. Talk to Annette.” Families in Dunmore knew one another and indeed when I spoke to Mrs. O’Donnell I reminded her that my Mom was one of the McDonalds from up on Drinker Street. A look came to her face and she said “Gena is your Mom?” She knew her.

     I learned a lot about the politics of funerals. Her son Al was talking me through preparations. On the day of the funeral, he said, he would call names of those present to walk up to the casket and say their farewells. “In what order would you like them to be?” I must have looked puzzled because he said “The order is important. I’ve seen some families get into arguments because someone didn’t like their place!”

     I learned another important lesson during the days of the wake. With one or two exceptions, I don’t remember much of what was said but I remember clearly who was there. In times of grief, I learned, words didn’t matter that much. Presence did. I remember who was there. Friends I hadn’t seen in years. A distant cousin I didn’t know I had. Friends of my parents. It was good to see how much she was loved. As my cousin Linda would later say to me “We all lost your Mom.”

     My mother also taught me another important lesson about dying. By then I’d had one experience of being present at someone’s death. It had been a potent spiritual experience so I went back hoping that I would be present when my Mom let go. But she hung on. One night after I left the hospital I raged at God. “She’s one of yours, Lord Take her!” But then the next evening I was sitting with my Mom and had a flash from, of all things, a Western Titled Ride the High Country. At the end of the film after a gun battle, Joel McCrea is lying on the ground speaking to his friend Randolph Scott. The two young people who were also there start walking to them. Joel McRae asks Randolph Scott to wave them off, saying “I’ll go it alone.” So said to my Mom, “You want to go it alone, don’t you?” She said quietly “Yes.”

     I realized then that she was the one doing the dying and therefore she was the one who got to set the terms, which is what she did. She died three days after Christmas shortly after a visit from my Dad. She was alone.

     My Dad’s leave-taking extended over 6 years. It began with a stroke 6 months before my mother died and ended in El Paso TX one week after he had fallen. He had moved to El Paso 3 years before and, for a time, lived comfortably at a nearby assisted living facility. Dementia began to set in, however, to the point that he was asked to leave that facility. My Dad for years had feared ending up in a nursing home. Fortunately, another assisted living facility was willing to take him. Wirth some adjustments in medication, his agitation left him and he was content. He had only two requests – that I not let him linger and that he be buried next to my Mom.

     That request not to linger would teach me an important lesson. When he fell, he’d suffered a hematoma which was causing pressure in his head and, untreated, would kill him. A neurologist contacted me to explain treatment options. He described relieving the pressure by boring a hole in my Dad’s head. I hesitated and, in a move uncommon for physician’s he asked “What kind of quality of life has your Dad had?” I said simply “None. He’s lost his past.” The doctor hesitated then said “Well if it were my father, I’d let him go.” To this day, I greatly appreciate that doctor sharing from his heart. So that’s what we did. Nothing.

     It’s the kind of decision I don’t wish on anyone yet we all need a person in our lives willing to make that call for us. I am grateful that my dad trusted me with that decision. His regular doctor, also a very kind and compassionate man, kept him comfortable as we waited. Thankfully it didn’t take long.

     I’d made preparations with (again!) the O’Donnell’s. From long distance it was easier. I asked Tom if he still had records from my mother’s funeral. He did and so I said ‘Please do the same for my Dad.”

     It was a smaller funeral in part because, as my Dad would say, “All my friends are dead!” which was only partially true. In any case, he’s back there in Pennsylvania, next to my mother.    

Funerals are for the living. It is a ritual that exists in many forms but in part for the purpose of helping us acknowledge the cycle of life and death.

As Robert Anderson writes at the beginning and end of his play I Never Sang for My Father: “Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship.” Funerals help us take that relationship to the next stage.

Reflection: 1. How have funerals impacted your spiritual journey?

About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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3 Responses to On Funerals

  1. Lowell S Hu says:

    You are right. Presence matters SO much. And yes, relationships don’t end with death. Viktor Frankl said that death cannot destroy meaning. Long before her passing you said I would forgive my mother and I did. Death seemed to minimize her transgressions in my mind, though it magnified my own. She was able to say, “I’m sorry” before she died, something I was never able to say to her.

  2. Pamela G Fenenbock says:

    Thanks for sharing this. We learn about death and dying from our families and our culture. The ritual of a funeral, a wake, a celebration of life, all play a potentially important part in our grief journey. During the current pandemic, the inability to be present with loved ones who are in facilities and the inability to hold a ritual such as a funeral are adding to bereaved families’ distress.Holding some type of ritual no matter the size can be of help.

  3. Mike Gaglio says:

    Good one Doc!

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