About ten years ago my family began a strange tradition that has become the norm. We don’t do funerals anymore. At all, and I think it’s wonderful.
It started with my grandfather, who had been ill for a very long time before he passed away in 2009. It was a surprise to me, but he had been adamant that he didn’t want a funeral. He was cremated, and his ashes were (much) later scattered in small, personal memorial ceremony in my grandmother’s garden attended by just a few family members. My uncle followed in kind in August of that year, and just this past month so did my grandmother. In every case their remains were gathered and burned as soon as possible.
It was weird to me at first. Death is one of humanity’s oldest reasons for ritual, and I can’t even tell you how many tearful funeral scenes I’ve watched in movies. They have this astounding necessity to them, so much though that it almost seems blasphemous to even suggest not having one.
They’re like weddings in that way, and the price tag matches. My former next-door neighbor worked pre-selling burial packages to people who wanted to prepare for their rest. He told me that most folks had no idea how much the price of a funeral often went up between the time the arrangements were made and when they were ultimately needed. Death is big business, and we often get roped into it because of the pressure of a “proper” goodbye.
My antipathy for funerals had been growing for a while by the time my grandfather passed. My best friend died quite young, and her funeral was a heartfelt but slash-dash affair presided over by a religious officiant who had clearly cribbed for the test without really knowing her. I eventually turned it into the basis of my short story “Nevaeh” where a drive-thru church begins offering funerals the way McDonald’s offers the McRib.
Literary mockery aside, the nagging apparent normalcy of funerals seemed as unavoidable as the death that leads to them. It was just something you did, and I honestly worried about what would happen when my parents passed and the cost of burying them fell to me.
Now, I have fully embraced this tradition my family has begun. No more scrambling around to make sure that everyone can upend their lives to make it down for a showing in the narrow window after death, no matter how predicted. No more planning elaborate flower arrangements in the middle of trying to process grief and loss. No more adding some sort of bill when the primary concern should be togetherness, support and memories.
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Funerals are for the living, but I’ve come to see that the good they do us is often offset by the stress and harm. Losing your mom doesn’t put people in the mind for a party, and I’m glad that my grandfather, may his curmudgeonly and anti-social soul rest forever in glory, put his foot down to prove that.
It’s better to have the space to deal with death. The halting words of my family as they mourned my grandfather next to my grandmother’s flowerbed is not something that can ever be replicated by a rent-a-pastor. The waves of Galveston outside my uncle’s beach house were more music than any choir could have produced, and I’m glad they sailed that kind man off to his reward rather than trapping the emotions we were all feeling in some hall we’d never been to and would never return to.
My family decided to say “no thank you” to funerals, preferring to hold onto memories and water them with quiet contemplative grief until a time less burdened with frantic schedules and need. For myself, I don’t even want the burning anymore, and plan to donate my body to science after the organ farmers are done with it. I would rather my final performance on Earth not be in a display case that requires a bank loan to pay for. It’s better to be well-loved when alive and gone when you’re gone. The sooner we are safely treasured memories rather than meat to be disposed of the better.
Funerals are a suckers’ game. I’m glad my family has taught me that.