SHIFT: The rituals around death are about honouring a life, but also a reminder of the fragility of our own

There's nothing like a funeral to get you thinking about who will go through your underwear drawer and what people will say about you when you're gone.

Lisa Machado 6 minute read May 7, 2022
girl on a swing

Funerals are fundamental to how we grieve, reinforce social ties, and expand the social safety net in times of vulnerability and loss, according to clinical psychologist Christy Denckla. GETTY

It’s been one heck of a couple years in terms of funerals and memorials.

From my own family to friends and even acquaintances in the neighbourhood, it seems like everyone has either experienced some kind of loss in recent months, or has marked a one or two-year anniversary of losing someone they cared about.

And maybe it’s the pandemic that’s making death seem so much closer to our door, or the constant onslaught of bad news in the media, but whatever it is, when loss seems to be everywhere, it can be hard not to think about your own end. After all, there’s nothing like news of a close friend’s passing, a funeral or a memorial service to remind you how short life is. But it also gets your mind cooking up visions of the other stuff too, like what people will say about you when you’re gone, who will go through your underwear drawer, and the fact that it really is time, finally, to update that Will.

“We need to get together more. Life is so… well, you just never know.” This from a long-time friend as we sat in a crowded room, waiting for the memorial service for a friend’s husband to begin.

The low hum of people consoling each other and sharing stories was interrupted by the sharp sound of bagpipes, the mournful notes accompanying the slow steps of our friend and her three teenaged children as they walked hand-in-hand to their seats at the front of the room, where a small rose-coloured urn sat.

Her husband had chosen a downtown brewery for his final farewell — appropriate not only because he liked his beer, but also because it lent a sort of unexpected lightness to the moment, so fitting for a guy who was always quick with a smile and a compliment.

But there was something else about the vibe in the room that morning — there was a sense that although we were mourning a loss, we were also being reminded of the gift that is living, of life, of the often-forgotten good fortune of simply being able to get out of bed.

And it wasn’t just the warmth of the bright sun that shone through the floor-to-ceiling windows, picking up the small particles of dust in the air, or the dark hardwood floor that reflected the delicate chandeliers sparkling from the ceiling. It wasn’t the small shiny black leather chairs, arranged in perfectly straight lines — 40 rows of 15, 20 on each side of the room — each with a small package of Kleenex sitting in the middle of the seat cushion.

It wasn’t even the bright flowers, or the large table of thick vintage glasses filled with fruit or the tall goblets of water with dainty slivers of lemon floating on top of round ice cubes — though you couldn’t be blamed for letting yourself imagine for just a second that you were at a party, rather than a sad send-off to a much-loved friend, father and husband.

“Can we book a time to have dinner?” my friend leaned over to whisper, her hand squeezing mine. “Like, now?”

I completely understood her rush — we had been talking about meeting up for months, and yet, the busyness of life had gotten in the way. The slouch in our friend’s shoulders as she accepted condolence after condolence was the nudge we needed to get on with it: life doesn’t last forever.

But there was something about how both living and dying gracefully intertwined and flowed through the room that day that got me thinking about the different ways we choose to honour someone’s life, and how the blow of devastating loss can sometimes somehow be eased by the very same rituals that feel so full of pain and sadness.

I also couldn’t help comparing the feeling of the breezy brewery with the grey soundlessness of a funeral home, where the darkness of it all — the black limousines in the parking lot, the black suits and skirts of the employees, even the black leather binding on the guest book — seem to push away thoughts of life, where your loss gets heaped on top of the losses of those before you, weighing heavy, not leaving much space to even think about healing. At least not in that moment.

Last August, when COVID restrictions eased enough to say an official goodbye to my brother who died a few months before, family and friends gathered in a cemetery just outside of Toronto — a beautiful cemetery, absolutely, with flowers and fountains and sweet swans that floated in a pond nearby. And yet, despite the peace of having nature all around us, the calm wrestled with signs of loss — the many headstones, the fresh bouquets of flowers placed beside some and wilted remnants of roses near others, the man off in the distance on his knees crying beside a pile of freshly dug dirt — all of it was… a lot.

And yet, as difficult as acknowledging the loss of a loved one is, it’s also very good for us, not only in terms of mental and emotional well-being, but in the ways it allows us to deepen our relationships with others.

“Funerals and the rituals that go along with mourning that loss are really fundamental to a number of processes,” Christy Denckla, a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a clinical psychologist specializing in grief, told NPR. “They’re fundamental to how we mourn, to how we grieve, to how we reinforce social ties, to how we expand the social safety net in times of vulnerability and loss. And more fundamentally, they reflect what it means for us to be human and for us to love and for us to connect.”

Still, all of the “benefits” of ceremonies that mark a death and celebrate a life don’t take the sting out of saying goodbye.

On the evening of the memorial at the brewery, my daughter and I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil for tea, talking about what would be the most fun way to mark my death. I thought it should have something to do with dogs. She thought that renting a Lindt chocolate store for a few hours would be more fitting.

“Of course, I would be really sad and everything,” she said, before describing how she would arrange to have little bags of Lindt balls given out to guests. “It’s perfect.”

We laughed, planned a few other things, like serving melted chocolate from a giant vat, and then she left to get ready for bed. And as I sipped my tea, I sent a text to my friend:

About that dinner. I made reservations for tomorrow night. Let’s not wait another minute.


Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing.

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