Why I Want a Funeral, Not a Celebration of Life
When I die, I hope my family doesn’t celebrate.
This should go without saying… but it can’t. Let me explain.
There is no doubt that our American culture is awkward when it comes to grief. Uniformed perhaps. Maybe illiterate. And our culture’s constant preoccupation with fixing grief, coupled with an unhealthy obsession with looking on the bright side, seems most obvious to me when a funeral home advertises celebrations of life as a “more positive way to deal with death.”
I’ve attended a few such “celebrations.” I understand grief is intensely personal, and I do not fault anyone for grieving in the way that makes the most sense for them. In fact, many of my baby loss friends have had celebrations for their babies — which I understand because this might be the only time they get to truly celebrate the life of their child with their community.
But as a guest at a celebration of life, the call to celebrate felt cumbersome to me. During the service, we were reminded multiple times that we were not grieving, we were not mourning… we were celebrating. Because the person lived, not because they died. Moments in the service were tender and hard, and I felt the tears welling because the person had died. And each time, I felt the admonishment that this person wanted me to be happy, not sad.
I left confused, not celebratory. Sad, not joyful. I longed for permission to grieve. It was not given from the pulpit.
Each time I came home, I told my husband…
“When I die, please give me a funeral. Not a celebration.”
When my grandparents died, we had funerals. My family created presentations out of the many pictures we poured over during those days immediately after their loss. We contemplated which songs they loved so we could play them at the funeral, and for my husband’s grandpa’s service, I even sang his favorite hymn. The day before the funeral we spent hours with their bodies as friends and family gave condolences. The following day we gathered together. We spoke of both our love for them and of our deep sadness at their loss. We circled around the graves and cried as their bodies were lowered, allowing the finality of their death to set in. And then we went to a potluck put on by the church, where all who attended reminisced and shared the memories of our loved ones that we will always cherish.
This scenario was as comforting as I could expect given the fact that I was mourning. Grateful for the opportunity to cry, I let my tears run as often as I needed.
This is my hope for every grieving person: That they have the express permission to grieve, not the expected command to celebrate.
If my children were motherless, the last burden I would ever want to place on them is the expectation that they are happy with their loss. And I believe our babies would also give us this permission to feel whatever we need to feel without judgment.
Let me be clear: I hope my loved ones will celebrate my life. And I want you to celebrate every life of every person who has ever meant anything to you. 100%. This is the reason we have days set aside for birthdays and anniversaries. And if a celebration of life is truly the best way for you to remember your loved one, that is not for me to judge.
But I also want you to have dedicated times to mourn. No, scratch that. I don’t just want you to mourn by yourself, holed up in your closet wailing alone because our society has made grief unacceptable. No, I want you to mourn surrounded by the support of your loved ones who are still living. I want them to wail and shriek or cry silently alongside you and hold reverie for the greatness of loss you are holding within. I want you to have the right — the inherent God-given right — to publicly declare that this loss has brought up the deepest of sadness in you and that it is OK for you to hurt as you do.
And yet that God-given right is often rejected by those who claim to be closest to God. “We do not grieve as the world grieves,” many paraphrase 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “We do not grieve as though we have no hope.”
But that doesn’t mean we don’t grieve.
Yes, we have hope. But Jesus wept with his friends, even when he had the hope that Lazarus would be raised from the dead in 5 minutes. Jesus wept with sorrow in the garden, admonishing his friends for not holding vigil with him at the death that was to come, even though he knew of the salvation afterward. If he needed to weep, if he needed to weep inside a safe community, even with his firsthand knowledge of the glory of heaven, how much more for us mortals who can only speculate on such things?
When it is my turn to leave this earth, I ask that my children have the gift of my funeral. That on the day I am laid aside, my absence from their lives now forever felt, they will have permission to grieve my death and not be demanded to celebrate my life as though my death did not occur. And my prayer is that they will be able to grieve surrounded by a community that acknowledges that, even with hope, death was never God’s plan. It is a loss. A loss we deserve to mourn.
Afterall, if we can no longer mourn at a funeral, where will it ever be safe to grieve in society?
What about you? Do you think what we call these services matter? Do you find more comfort at a celebration service or a funeral?