I attended a rural high school where all students were bussed in from neighbouring communities unless you were one of the cool kids and had your own car. The student and staff body was made up of farming families and small town folks. There was one memorable class that had a great impact on me. One teacher, who was clearly ahead of her time, offered a death education class. Thirty years ago, this was unheard of and the school board was not particularly fond of a teacher standing her ground and taking a bus load of 16 year olds on a field trip to a funeral home in the nearest city. She told me years later that she was often threatened with being fired but she persevered and had a very positive impact on her students as a result.
Recently I purged my home of everything unnecessary and I came upon an article that I had saved from that class. It was called: “Funerals are for the Living.” I remember reading that handout for the very first time as a young student and how a light bulb went off in my head. My interest in the value of meaningful ceremony was ignited and today I am a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant specializing in creating personalized, meaningful funeral ceremonies for a living.
When someone dies, we naturally gather as a family and community to pay our respects and honour their life which most often includes a funeral service. Funerals are for the living because they help those left behind cope with the loss, grief and separation experienced after death. A ceremony that is crafted to truly reflect the deceased using carefully chosen words, music and ritual helps those who have gathered to feel a sense of celebration. Oftentimes a deep shift occurs within which helps rather than stifles their grief.
There is a rising trend towards another kind of funeral for the living that can have a positive impact on not only the one being honoured but on the guests as well. Living funerals are celebrations of life that occur before the person dies. It is a time for people to gather with their loved one who is deemed palliative to, for example, say all of the beautiful things they might have said upon their death. In this way, their words are heard by their loved one. Living funerals also have a way of shining a big bright light on the fact that death is near, that death is a reality of life and that speaking about it and even celebrating, in spite of it, can be incredibly moving, healing and freeing.
I attended my first living funeral in Victoria, BC in 1998. I was working in an art gallery and one of our artists was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She hosted a birthday party at the Emily Carr House and friends and colleagues gathered on a sunny day to honour her life with her instead of without her. There was story-telling, laughter, artwork, beautiful poignant speeches, and the sharing of her favourite foods. I had never experienced anything like it and have never forgotten it either. Knowing that her time was short, she wanted to have a celebration to not only mark this last birthday but to celebrate this day and her life. It was a reminder to all of us that we take so much for granted and that all we really have is the present moment~ the future will one day not be ours. Renowned artist, Ted Harrison, presented her with a beautiful original painting called “The Poet Greets the Sun” and we were all gifted with a reproduction, a keepsake that I still have to this day.
Granted, living funerals might be perceived as narcissistic and egotistical considering you are gathering your favourite people who may want to talk about how great you are and how much you will be missed. I actually think of a living funeral as having a different purpose. If I knew my time was short, I would gather my most beloved friends and family in a celebratory feast/ dance party where I would tell each of them how they had contributed positively to my life. I wouldn’t be as comfortable with sitting down and listening to kind words being spoken. Putting people on pedestals is not my thing.
There is a way to throw a celebration of this kind that will positively impact the honouree and the attendees. Be clear on what the purpose of it is and then plan accordingly. People need to do what works best for them. If having a living funeral will contribute to a more positive death experience then I say, “Go for it!”
©Julie Keon 2017
***Originally published as a guest post on Exit: the Life & Death Planner website (March 2017)