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Fitting celebrations to mark lives fully lived

By Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon - 16th Apr 2023


The funerals I attended recently were exquisite reflections of the wonderful people that they were celebrating  

I suppose it is a reflection of growing older – a status for which I am always grateful – that I seem to go to a lot of funerals these days. Where once my social calendar was filled with weddings and christenings, it is now punctuated, sporadically and unpredictably, by events that start with tears and distress, but often end with joy and laughter. (In fact, almost the exact opposite of most weddings and christenings, now that I think of it.)

I have been to three funerals already in 2023, and I am hoping that there won’t be too many more. No matter what the circumstances, the marking of the end of a person’s life is always an intensely emotional experience, and the process of grieving is a long and challenging one.

I used to avoid funerals when I was younger. They were just too hard. I never knew what to say, or how to say it, or whose hand to shake, or who to hug. It was easier to just get it over with, scuttle up the queue in the funeral home and whisper “sorry for your loss” at anyone in a black suit, then run out the door as fast as possible. I hated meeting people I knew in the line, because the urge to greet them with a big smile and a loud hello was always quickly dampened by the realisation that expressing joy at a funeral was a mark of criminal disrespect.

I used to avoid funerals when
I was younger.
They were just too hard

My attitudes changed after my first experience of being in the dark-suited line-up myself, as a lead mourner. My mother-in-law died 15 years ago, when all of her children were still relatively young, and they had to take on the very grown-up responsibilities that come with dealing with funeral directors and delivering eulogies. These are not easy jobs, and there is very little advance guidance on how to proceed. Undertakers are skilled at steering people through these difficult times, but given the Irish tradition of burying someone within a few short days of their death, it all seems frantically rushed and ferociously complex. And just so exhausting.

When I was diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, I was naturally prone to pondering my own death and how it might be. I filled in the very useful ‘Think Ahead’ form from the Irish Hospice Foundation, and created my own funeral playlist (I have never denied being a control freak). I thought about how to ensure I would have the best send-off ever, and became excessively interested in the quality of the funerals that I subsequently attended. If I were to suggest that I mark them all out of 10, that would sound callous and frankly mercenary, so I’ll pretend that I don’t….

What I will say, though, is that the three ceremonies I attended recently were exquisite reflections of the wonderful people that they were celebrating, and of the people who loved them most. Each of the three individuals was the cornerstone of their family, and this was evident in the unity and community of those who came to mourn their passing. They all had grandchildren, who not only loved them, but felt safe and secure in their company. They were people who had built happy homes. Each of them had a spouse who was their true life partner, their trusty companion, and occasionally their co-conspirator. I don’t know if it is a coincidence that the three people had so many things in common, or maybe I am just connected with like-minded and lucky folk with similar stories and life experiences. Either way, it was remarkable to me that I was fortunate to witness these precious and beautiful demonstrations of lifelong love and commitment.

The eulogies in each funeral were delivered by sons; men who did not expect to find themselves in this position, on that day, at that time, but possibly knew that one day they would be called upon. It is a daunting task I am sure, and yet each one spoke afterwards about feeling privileged to have the opportunity to speak about their parent and to reflect on their extraordinary lives. One man said he wished he had done it sooner; but of course, he didn’t really mean that. We can never truly celebrate a life until it has been fully lived. But that shouldn’t stop us from planning our own funeral playlist.

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