On January 15th, I attended the funeral of a very special friend. Actually, it was not a “funeral”, which implies that the casketed body was present, but rather a memorial service, since only his cremation urn was present.
The concept of a holding a funeral service is hardly something new. Some of the earliest evidence of mankind on earth relates to this practice.
In my more than 40 years in funeral service, I have attended the services of family members, friends, and those I met as their funeral director. I have also discovered that there are three primary reasons why people attend funerals:
A Sense of Obligation
A Need to Attend
Wanting to Attend
Sometimes it is just one of these reasons. Other times it is a combination of all three.
There are some services that we feel we are obliged to attend. Often these are the services for family members, close friends, or co-workers. Somehow it just feels “right” that we be present for this service of saying farewell.
I can honestly say that I did not feel deeply obliged to attend this service. It was being held half way across the country from where I live, and was certainly something for which I had not budgeted in planning my travel expenses for the year. He was a very good friend, but I know he would have understood my not being present.
There are some services where we feel a need to attend, rather than only a sense of obligation. This might be service for someone that we had not seen in some time. It might be a situation where the death was sudden and not expected. Often it is a service for someone with whom we feel “incomplete” in our relationship.
If someone with whom we have unfinished business on an emotional level dies, we might “need” to attend that service as part of trying to complete that unfinished business. Being in the presence of that person one last time, surrounded by others who also cared about them, creates an environment that allows us to express some of our emotions. These services of farewell are, by their nature and design, emotional events.
Frankly, I did not feel a “Need” to be present at this service. My friend and I were emotionally complete in our relationship. He had been diagnosed with cancer many months prior to his death. After that diagnosis, we had a long conversation. It was our practice not to leave loose ends in our relationship and to say the things that needed to be said to each other whenever we spoke. As his illness progressed, I contacted him a number of times to share my feelings and appreciation for what he added to my life.
Seating at the service was limited and attendance was by invitation only. I did not wish to deprive someone who “needed” to attend the opportunity to be present.
Wanting to attend a service is something very different. This is a deep personal desire to be part of that time set aside to say goodbye. It is about wanting to hear how that person touched the lives of others. It is about wanting to learn about the other aspects in that person’s life beyond what was part of your relationship. These are not things you need to know, but rather the things you want to learn to paint a more complete picture of them as an individual.
I wanted to attend this service for all of those reasons, and I was not disappointed!
The beauty of this service was that it was planned out over a period of time. Where most funerals are held within days after a death, when the family members and friends are so overwhelmed with the event that they are not thinking clearly, this memorial service was held almost two months later. This offered the family the opportunity to think about how they wished to structure the service and who they wished to share memories.
I learned that my friend, whom I knew to be passionate and focused when it came to his work and generally expressed that passion with carefully chosen words, could be quite different when it came to his passion for the game of golf. I learned that he was equally passionate about the proper etiquette of silence and position of the other players when he was taking a shot and that he could express his feelings of disgust at a poor shot with great passion as well. In this, I am being a bit tactful!
I learned about his love of Agility Training with his dog. I had always known him to have dogs and even bring them to the office, but I never knew about this type of training or his level of involvement.
I learned about his childhood and family and how he had ventured to the Basque Country in Europe to learn to play Jai-Alai.
While I had known that he had been in the restaurant business in the past, I learned a great deal more about this aspect of his life.
I had heard him talk about his family many times over the years. He would occasionally share stories about the love of his life, and other members of his family away from work. During the service, a number of heartwarming stories were shared.
I had heard, over those many years, stories of his first involvements in that final career that became his true passion. These stories were shared once again with even more details.
I also had a chance to meet his wife. I already felt that I knew her from all of the wonderful stories he chose to share, but I had never made her acquaintance. I will never regret having had that opportunity!
My attendance at this service was not one of true obligation or a need to know more. If I had never attended that service and learned these added details of his life, we would still have been complete in our relationship. I would have continued to cherish having had him as a part of my life without this added information.
I wanted to be there because Russell Friedman had been a special friend and mentor over the years and I am very glad that I followed through on this “want” and was able to attend. Thank goodness there were still seats available!
I only wish that all of the services I had attended over the years were created with such thoughtfulness and compassion. I have often said that the ideal time to hold a service, after the end of a life, would be three to six months later. By that time, all of the paperwork and estate matters have been completed and the family can focus on what really needs to be a part of the service. It is then that the “proper memory reflection” of that person has a better chance of being created. In this case, yet another vital element of the service revolved around the fact that the person who died always did his best to make sure that every ongoing personal relationship continued to stay complete, to the best of his ability. If those in his life chose to be incomplete in their relationship with him, it was by their own choice!
Another thing I discovered, in my many years of services is that a funeral or memorial service, whatever its structure, that was designed to speak to the family's wants, generally better satisfied their needs. Additionally, those attending out of a sense of obligation often found that service to be far more fulfilling.