My first funeral

73506494-3942-49B9-BDF6-50123597285EI conducted my first funeral this week. Conducted? Officiated? Celebrated? None of those verbs quite fit what it felt like, which was more in the realm of Journeyed, or Travelled With.

It was almost the end of the working day when the phone rang. I contemplated not answering, thinking longingly of the couch, when I saw who was calling and picked up as quickly as an iPhone interface will allow.

‘Can you do a funeral in three days?’ It was the funeral director who had become my informal mentor over the last few months.

‘Yes,’ I answered without checking my groaning calendar. Because this was the call I had been waiting for. The call to see if the other call from that more insistent, somewhere-in-my-head/chest voice, was legit.

After I hung up, I went to see Yen, who was doing homework with Ellie. ‘I’ve got my first funeral in three days,’ I said, leaning casually against the doorframe.

‘Congratulations!’ He exclaimed because he knew that I was not nonchalant, not at all; that I had been waiting for and fearing and wanting this moment ever since I started on the interfaith path, this time last year, or probably well before that (on the inside where it counts).  I let the smile spread across my face.

Later, he told me, ‘I haven’t seen you this excited in ages. You’re a bit weird, you know that? But I love you.’ Which pretty much sums up our marriage, in both directions :0)

I called the bereaved family straight away. I didn’t want to lose my nerve. We made a plan for me to come over to talk through what they had in mind.

The next day I baked ANZAC biscuits and put them in an old ice-cream container marked ‘lamb stew’ from the last time Yen and I tried to be organised with the week’s dinners. I donned: a work dress which was patterned with splashes of black, grey and white; sandals; a simple necklace; and just the wedding ring (thinking, I want to present as normal and relatable but not overly showy. Not that an engagement ring is showy. But still. Better to put people at their ease. That’s why the Japanese bow. Totally works.) Forty minutes later and I was at the address I had been given, being greeted by the family.

The day after that, I wrote up my notes. The family wanted to do the eulogy, so there was little for me to say, but I wanted to get what I was going to say right. It was going to be a small funeral, which would be a good entree into the art of funeral celebrancy for me; but at the same time intimidating because of the intimacy. Are those two words etymologically related? It would make sense.

Sleep, not so much. Then, the day.

I dropped Ellie at school, and drove down to the funeral home. As I also volunteer there, I had agreed to help prepare the deceased beforehand. My first glimpse of the deceased was a shock; until that moment I had only ever seen the bodies of people I had known alive. But when the funeral director turned to do something else, I placed my sanitary, gloved hand on the deceased’s hand and whispered, ‘Everything’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right.’ Because once I saw the deceased’s face, I no longer saw the ‘deceased.’ I just saw a person who was alone. Even if I don’t know what it is like to be dead, I know what it is like to be alone.

The room looked lovely and I quickly cleansed it with the Tibetan singing bowl which the funeral director kept on the mantel for just this purpose. The family and friends arrived and we started the entrance music chosen by the family. After the song finished, I began.

A family member did the eulogy, and it was beautiful and heartfelt and the family member broke down in tears towards the end. I whispered to the family member, ‘That was beautiful.’ Then I stood next to the deceased and thanked the family member for the tribute, and it felt right to be silent and look at the light brown, oak box which the funeral director had polished to a sheen. Then it was time for music, reflection and final farewells. I asked a family member to blow out the candle which we had lit earlier and had placed on the coffin. We let the music fade and I gave directions for going to share a cuppa afterwards, at the family’s place. There was a slight tech hitch getting the final song back on, but every one was very understanding.

The song ended and before I could say another word, I was engulfed in an embrace by the chief mourner. ‘Thank you Jackie,’ the family member said. ‘My pleasure,’ I replied, because it is important to accept thanks when they are offered. I couldn’t help adding. ‘Thank you.’

I ushered everyone out so the chief mourner could have a moment alone. People were gathering coats, umbrellas, getting into cars. ‘I hope I never see you again,’ one of the family members laughingly but feelingly said to me as I let them out the front door. ‘That’s an entirely reasonable sentiment,’ I answered.

My grandfather’s stated profession on his marriage certificate was ‘journeyman printer.’ When I was a kid I used to try and picture what that meant – did he travel from town to town, offering to publish stories that needed to be in print for the world to be more complete? Now I am reminded of his profession because I think, journeywoman is a good name for what I do.

Fellow journeywoman. Guide into and through the darkness. We came out the other side, together, me and the mourners.

That night, as I lay in bed, the sense of being carried up and over a wave was the closest I could get to describing the journey I had been on that day. Except I hadn’t been on the journey, exactly; it was more that I had been facilitating the wave, watching it curl, making sure it broke at just the right time, not swamping anyone in the undertow, not breaking so soon as to leave a vague sense of disappointment and incompleteness in the swimmers.

Later that night a sense of incredible euphoria came walking across my bones. ‘It’s time to go,’ I told it, and then it was gone. I had felt something similar after my sister died. I don’t know if it is a physical manifestation of my own transition from dark to light, death to the days that are not death; mostly it felt like the vestiges of some other energy accepting that my body is not a boat to carry them forth on this particular ocean any more. I got the sense that they knew that anyhow. They just thought they might try it on.

Whether it is superstition or a personal letting go or the energy signature of a departing soul, I think I will introduce a sage stick to my own re-entry into daily life, after ceremonies.

And there it is. After ceremonies. Implying that I am ready for the next one, and the one after that, by the grace of grace. I am in this now. And there is nowhere else I would rather be.


Note: I have de-identified names, places and dates for privacy purposes.

6 thoughts on “My first funeral

  1. You are spectacular. They are so lucky to have had you there, and your vocation for this is inspiring. Big love darl xxxxx

  2. If your funeral celebrancy is as sensitive and insightful as your writing, your clients are in excellent hands. You have beautifully captured the sensitivity of grief and the value of life. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  3. Hi,

    The best and the worst. The worst – a very large banal funeral for a young man where the mourners were divided between those who refused to use the adult name he chose to be known by and those who did. Between those who wanted to hear the music he had chosen for his funeral and hsoe who chose for him. I was tempted to hiss during the ceremony at the apparent lack of sensitivity.
    The best – a Russian orthodox funeral in a small chapel in Banskstown, i think, where the mourners gave full sway to singing in the dark, frankinsence, all holding candles with professional mourning singers guiding us around the open coffin. The room was so dark and the walls covered in small icon paintings lit up by flickering candle light. The ceremony was long and intensely moving with many theatrical trappings that come with traditional religious ceremonies. But somehow the inherent drama, sadness and finality of death was manifest in all the smoke, the sombre darkness and the singing.
    There is room for theatricality and drama.

  4. Perhaps ‘guided’ ? Because it sounds as though that’s exactly what you did Jackie. If circumstances are such that the funeral can be a celebration, with everyone who needs to having a chance to contribute, then through the tears there are often soft smiles of a wonderful life and treasured personal moments. Sometimes at larger funerals through these multiple contributions, we see perspectives of the person we hadn’t ourselves experienced. The right music is very important. Musical choices can describe a person as meaningfully as do words.
    The worst, absolutely worst, funeral I went to was one where there was to be no ‘fuss’, nothing ‘structured’, no music, no-one officiating, with those present just standing to say something if and when the spirit moved them to do so. It was sad in the extreme – a fabulous life without formal celebration. In my view a degree of formality and ritual is absolutely vital.
    You are an extremely special person, Ms Jackie.

  5. Thanks Lisa and Trish. Lisa, I agree that the drama can actually be a way for humans to really say, this was important. The experience you describe sounds really profound and amazing – I have yet to experience anything like it. THank you for sharing. The other end of the spectrum sounds really tense. I have heard from Tender that in some instances they actually hold two funerals where the different parties cannot reach a resolution. Because everyone needs a chance to grieve authentically.
    Trish, thank you for sharing those stories. The no fuss idea is the kind of thing I can just imagine someone, conscientiously enough, thinking would be a good idea at the time, until it happened. By which time it is a bit late.
    I agree that ritual really does help us, somehow removes the burden somewhat from us and places it in the hands of the ‘gods,’ whatever that might mean to each person involved. A cycle into mystery helps and always has, for the thousands of years we humans have been living and dying. And I really agree that the music is vital. It emotionally shifts you from one point in the journey to another, and allows transformation.

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