Culture War Correspondence: Funerals

Yeah, we’re not really gonna be using gifs for this one…

EVAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I realize that the intro to this feature is usually a fairly funny, light-hearted bit, but this time around we’re going to bring the tone way down, because our topic for the week is funerals.

I actually had no idea that we would even have a CWC due to Gordon not being around, but it turns out that his absence was due to the very thing we hope to discuss.

GORDON: Now this is something that Evan and I alike have some experience in. Last year, Evan lost one of his grandparents. Last week, I lost one of mine.

Just a few minutes ago, I got back from the funeral (well, technically it was a “viewing/visitation”- whether or not there’s a difference is something I hope we can cover), so today we’re going to be having a discussion on the subject of grieving, cultural depictions of mortality, and other such stuff.

EVAN: I’m going to inject some cultural diversity by stating that, as far as I know, I’ve only ever been to two funerals. The first was back in 2005, I think, for my Chinese grandfather which took place in Malaysia. The second was for my Filipino grandmother which happened here in Toronto.

Since I’m going to assume that most of you know how Western viewings or wakes or what have you go down, I’m going to describe the Eastern funeral rites a bit.

It involved a great deal of wearing white and standing and bowing while listening to a monk chant. In between these sessions one of my uncles would be burning hell notes and other such paper items so that my grandfather would have both money and other luxuries in the afterlife. This took place over half a week, if I recall correctly.

GORDON: Likewise, I’ve only ever been to two funerals. Well, one, technically, as I just came back from a viewing/visitation. I can however, speak to funerals in the Middle East, which involve no small amount of wailing, carrying the body in an open casket (draped with a cloth or flag) through the streets and burying it in an extremely austere sarcophagus within 24 hours of death.

Black, however, is the traditional color for mourning, unlike most of Asia, where white is associated with death.

EVAN: As a really quick segue, which do you prefer, or think makes more sense? I realize that black is the more universal colour associated with grieving and all of that.

GORDON: I’m what you’d call a “cynic.”

This doesn’t mean I’m railing on everything (though I am)- I’m talking about being a “cynic” as in subscribing largely to the philosophy of the ancient Greek barrel-dweller Diogenes, whose general view on the world can be summed up in the words of Ecclesiastes:

“Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.”

Honestly, I think you could were violent pink to a funeral and it shouldn’t make a difference, though I prefer black simply because I like the color more.

EVAN: I’m pretty sure that was Chronicles.

GORDON: It was Ecclesiates. I’d bet on it.

EVAN: [checks the internet] I have no idea what I was thinking. I would strike that exchange from the record, but I like to think that I’m a humble enough man that I can project to the internet how wrong I am.

Ok, we can use one gif…

Moving forward how would you describe your experience earlier?

GORDON: Eesh. I mean, a funeral isn’t a fun affair, but I think everyone took it well in stride with quiet dignity that’d honor my grandfather’s memory. Not a whole lot to tell, really. We all sat in the mortuary with the coffin (closed casket, as per the family’s general consensus). Friends and neighbors came to offer their condolences, everyone had a while to catch up with each other, and we adjourned to my grandmother’s house for wine and cheese.

EVAN: My grandmother’s wake was more or less the same, but took place over the course of two days.

The way you described it, though, it seems like you’d state that as an event it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. Now I know you just admitted to the world what a cynic you are, but in an ideal world how would you like your funeral to go?

GORDON: I’m going to suppress my urge to be preserved by an expert taxidermist and placed in various parts of the local town or city with a judging expression on my face in favor of something more realistic.

I’d want my body stripped down for whatever spare parts people can get. I drink and I smoke, so I don’t imagine my lungs or liver are in awesome condition, but they should still be transplant-worthy, as should be most of my other vital organs.

Anything that can’t be used can get shipped off for medical science and whatnot.

EVAN: And the rest of your remains?

GORDON: What, the stuff that even medical schools won’t take?

EVAN: I’m going to assume that there’s a fair amount they won’t find any use for.

GORDON: Hm. I dunno. I don’t really think it makes any difference at that point, does it?

What about your mortal coil?

EVAN: This all has me thinking about that saying you always hear at funerals and the like, “It’s what they would’ve wanted.”

That being said, what I’d really want is for people to remember me, which I think is all anyone wants, really, but also for them to enjoy doing it. I’m thinking the sort of event that, while reasonable sombre at points, has an open bar.

As for my remains, I’m more or less with you that they hardly matter. I think that at the rate we’re growing we’ll run out of room for cemeteries eventually, so internment is out and cremation is more likely.

I’m a little disappointed you opted for the more realistic approach, since viking funerals are, well, super awesome.

GORDON: Well, no one’s saying that we can’t go out standing atop a mountain of defeated enemies screaming bloody defiance in the face of the universe…

EVAN: We’re saying funeral rites, not cause of death.

Though in an ideal world that mental image appeals to me on a number of levels.

GORDON: Alright, anything about funerals or our culture’s approach to mortality in general that you think needs changing?

EVAN: In other words, “do I think we’re doing anything wrong at the moment.”

I’d say that we’re probably spending too much on caskets. You know people always shoot for those really nice wooden ones, and the cheaper models set you back half a grand. I realize that “only the best” and all that, but there’s not much point is there?

And this all goes along with the sentiment we both share that once you’re dead you’re dead. A fancy gravestone won’t make up for a life poorly lived, etc.

GORDON: I do share that sentiment. I think the general obsession with the body fits in there as well (that said, I do enjoy a nice looking graveyard, or at least, one with character- if that’s not too callous of a thing to say).

EVAN: You’re far from wrong, man. Graveyards at their best are very peaceful bits of land bedecked with very tasteful and, at times, awe-inspiring pieces of stonework. In that sense it makes perfect sense that people are so picky about their final resting places.a

GORDON: Other than our general cultural obsession with needlessly fancy ceremonial stuff, is there anything else you’d want to see changed? Anything you’d want to see incorporated into funerals?

How about the concept of funerals as religious ceremonies- especially when given for people who weren’t especially (if at all) religious?

EVAN: That’s really more to help put their loved ones’ minds at ease, though, isn’t it? In general I don’t it matters a great deal, though it might if they were exceptionally vehement atheists in life.

As for your first question, I want to dredge up the work of a man whose personal beliefs we both abhor: Mr. Orson Scott Card.

You know what I”m referring to, right?

GORDON: I presume you’re talking about his vehement, threatening-violent, homophobia…

EVAN: I am actually referring to his novel Speaker for the Dead.

GORDON: I haven’t heard of that one.

EVAN: Well, it’s one of his Ender books, and essentially the titular character has the role of speaking after someone’s death and essentially revealing secrets about their lives or, as I like to call them, “the truth.”

Now I’m not exactly saying that we should shame people at their funerals, but I do think that the knowledge that how we live our lives will actually be reflected after our passing would affect a lot of people. There’s no preacher making broad statements about the good things you did, but a recounting of your actual actions.

GORDON: Interesting concept.

That kinda goes without saying, though. Part of any eulogy is recounting what a person did in his or her life

EVAN: True, but that’s usually a heavily censored version.

GORDON: Granted, but brutal as I am, I’m not sure that this would be the time or place to offer an unflinching reflection of a person, y’know? Probably better to do that while they’re still alive.

EVAN: We’re really veering away from the topic at hand now, but can you imagine annual public reviews?

“Henry Mann. Aged 18. Helped an old lady across the street after seeing she was clearly in need of help. Kicked a twelve-year-old kid in the balls for no reason; said kid had to be hospitalized. . .”

GORDON: That… was weirdly specific, but yeah, that wouldn’t be bad as a general practice.

EVAN: I think what this talk about funerals has really done is gotten me thinking about how we live our lives in general which is . . . the silver lining, I suppose? I guess it’s ideally what funerals are supposed to do besides help you remember a loved one, they’re also there to remind you that you’ve got your own time and to use it well.

GORDON: That’s certainly true, and speaking of moving along, we’re just about out of time here as well.

Okay, people, let’s see some comments left below with your own views and perspectives on the subject, and, as flippin’ always, some discussion suggestions for next week.

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9 responses to “Culture War Correspondence: Funerals

  1. Due to my extended family being both very large and very close I have been to quite a large number of funerals over the years and have given this quite a lot of thought. You may (or may not) remember that during finals one year I had to leave because my grandfather had picked a very inconvenient time to pass away.

    As you know I’m a big fan of Orson Scott Card’s Ender books, if not a fan of the man himself. I really like the idea of a Speaker for the Dead. One of the things that I’ve experienced at funerals is a feeling of unfinished business. Either old grievances and estrangements that are now beyond reconciliation or just words that were never said. I think one of the causes of these feelings is the eulogizing of a deeply flawed human and presenting them, in most cases, as something of a saint. Hearing a sinner referred to as a saint only makes their flaws stand out in sharper contrast, if that makes sense. I think there’s a lot of value in sharing the truth. It can bring much needed closure, something often lacking from funerals, and can help families to feel closer. Now nobody is alone with any knowledge. It’s all out there, so we can remember the good and the bad and move on.

    On a more personal note I have always been confused by funerals. More specifically, I’m confused by the way people act at funerals. People are always crying or sitting silently with a small frown. I fell asleep at my grandfathers funeral. I might be callous or a sociopath or just plain weird but in my mind have a big group cry is a very selfish and disrespectful send-off for the dearly departed. For Christians there is the assumption that this family member is now in heaven. We are really only crying for ourselves. I think funerals should be celebrations of the person’s life.

    But that really leads to the question of who are funerals for? If funerals are for the one in the casket we do a really, really terrible job. If funerals are for the family I still think we do a terrible job. There is some value in having someone to cry with when you’ve lost a family member, but there is also so much value in coming to a celebration and facing a world without your loved one buoyed by the love of your family.

    Again, that might just be me. I’ve always wanted jokes to be read at my funeral. If nobody laughs at my funeral I’ll be convinced it sucked.

  2. When we lived in a village in China, funerals were three-five day long affairs (depending on how much money the person had) with similar ceremonies to what Evan described, the burning of hell money and monks chanting. After that however it basically devolved (judgement word I know but I’ll explain) into a loud raucous party in which the men sat around eating, drinking, and smoking and the women cooked and cooked and cooked. It was not uncommon for one funeral to be the cause of another.
    Part of me has alwasy valued the sense that the funeral should be about the living- that you should have a party and reaffirm family ties, take the moments of solemnity and make any corrections with the living that you wish you would have with the dead. On the other hand, even as a Christian, I struggle deeply with the idea of celebrating or having a happy tone at a funeral because death is such a brutal reminder of how broken the world is. Even good healthy rich relationships are severed and for a time at least, defunct.
    On an unrelated note that Evan will appreciate, my mother has planned a three day funeral, with different outfits and a schedule of events- for herself. It’s extensively organized.

  3. roxannemakesstuff

    I’m not commenting on my own funeral experience (although I have been to three, and I think two of them at least did great justice to celebrating a life and the family they left behind), but if this has anyone interested in further discussion, I have a book suggestion.

    “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, but Nobody Wants to Die” is an excellent book by David Crowder and Mike Hogan about…well, a lot of things, but mainly mourning and the existence/continuation of the soul. It’s hard to describe fully, but it is one of my favorites because of the myriad of things it covers and the way it ties them together so beautifully. After dealing with the sudden death of a friend, the authors started discussing death and how we deal with it. Part of it touches on some of the oddities at funerals, which is why I thought of it. The book covers a lot of historical views of the soul, ties in the history of bluegrass (because why not?), honest chats between the two authors, and a set of stories that I’m still not sure about.

    It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but continues to be one of the best books I have ever had the pleasure to read. Oh, look, it’s only a penny. http://www.amazon.com/Everybody-Wants-Heaven-but-Nobody/dp/0310291917

  4. I think these look pretty cool, and I might want to buried in one of them: http://infinityburialproject.com/burial-suit

  5. My main desire for my own funeral is to do it as cheaply as possible. Don’t waste money on me, I’m dead. Also, any money you DO spend should be on having a good time. Have a potluck supper, hire a DJ.

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