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In seminary, my husband had to plan his own funeral as part of a course on grief. (Conversely, in grad school I wrote and produced a play for a class called “Disaster, Death, and Madness.” My experience was more fun. His was more useful.) Back in March, when I first visited my parents after learning my dad had cancer, my mom was already planning his funeral. As I write this, he is in the hospital because he has stopped eating. So, I don’t know when my dad’s last day is, but I wish I had taken the same course on grief that my husband did.
What would I want my funeral to be like? Some people don’t even like the word “funeral;” it’s a “celebration of life,” they say. I think that we SHOULD celebrate the life that someone lived, but too often the reason people feel the need to celebrate is because they don’t have the skills needed to grieve well. Our culture seems to hate grief, hate sadness, and be willing to do anything to feel better. What we don’t realize is that going THROUGH grief is the only way to really survive grief.
There’s a book by Dr. Lauren Winner called “Mudhouse Sabbath” in which she describes what happens in a Jewish community when someone dies. For seven days after their loved-one’s burial, the mourner stays home and friends (at least 10) come over three times a day with food to pray a special “Kaddish” prayer about God being worthy to be praised. After that week is a month in which the mourner slowly goes back out into the community, praying that Kaddish prayer with friends twice a day at synagogue and once a day with friends at home. Then for the next year the mourner will continue to pray that prayer with friends 2-3 times a day (it doesn’t have to be at the mourner’s home, but it does require at least 10 people every day for a year).
At first glance, that sounds overwhelming. It sounds like too many people to bother with my sadness for too long. It sounds like a huge obligation if you’re not the one mourning. But it also sounds like an incredible way to be healed and an incredible way to make others feel loved.
So, what would I want my funeral to be like? What do I want my dad’s funeral to be like? I want them to be spaces where friends and family can gather together to pray the praises of God. And I want them to be spaces where people begin the long, community work of helping loved ones grieve.