What is the value of death? Of funerals? Is there a way to experience these tragic events and draw strength, resiliency, connection, love?
I was at the funeral of an out-law family member this week. He learned as a relatively young man that he had been dealt a difficult hand which would prevent him from leading a full and involved life. This reduction in his capacity for involvement was always a very painful experience for his family. Everyone always wished more for his future.
Deaths like this can be tricky. I’m sure many came to the funeral concerned about how it might feel. There were certainly people that could have tilted the entire experience toward something really depressing–something that circled and focused on all that was missed. But that wasn’t what happened. In fact, the exact opposite happened. It was one of the most inspiring funerals I had ever attended.
Eulogies are difficult to write at the best of times and this was to be a celebration of a life unlived. The difficult job, given to the eldest, was taken with grace. When many would have hidden behind quotes and scriptures and platitudes, instead she dove into the heart of it and there she found her gold. It was her words that opened everyone’s eyes and hearts.
The value of a funeral is in what the life can teach the rest of us. That’s how their spirit is passed on; when we inform our lives by the lessons provided by theirs. In that way we literally make them a part of ourselves. And yet some lives do such a bad job of lining up with society that the presumption is that they are failures and that they have nothing to offer. All the check-boxes are ticked off and no one gives it any real thought. It’s just a shame.
But then a sister takes a deep hard loving look and she’s surprised by what she sees. She’s further surprised that she’s surprised because as she sits with the knowledge she realises that some part of her always knew it–just like everyone in that room subconsciously knew it: the deceased was never seen to be suffering. Yes he experienced pain but he never dwelled there. The person everyone perceived as having a sad life had actually always been happy.
It’s a strange thing for everyone to miss isn’t it? No one actually missed it, but no one at the time every gave it the value it deserved; we were all too focused on what was missing. Everyone else was focused on what was missing his life. He didn’t mind because he never noticed; he was too focused on caring about all of our lives.
I remember going to the funeral of an extremely wealthy man who I had grown very close to and the saddest part about it was that I didn’t hear anyone talking about him the way he told me he wished they would. He wanted to be seen as being a person who people liked because he personally left them feeling better than he found them. Put another way, the billionaire wished he could have given people the feeling that the man with the “sad” life got to give. So in the end whose life was rich?
The billionaire was a good man and his life meant a lot to me due to the many poignant conversations we had about life, but even he said that the lesson of his life was to avoid the choices he made because they were external and hollow. He wanted people to remember him as someone nice. He wanted himself remembered the way we’ll all remember Ray: as a guy who was always smiling and was always genuinely interested in how you were. And when you stop to really think about it, it’s just amazing what that’s worth.
Rest in Peace Ray.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.