Death – a word we all try to avoid, but that we know is inevitable. It isn’t easy in the slightest to go to a funeral for someone you knew well and cherished, so why would one ever go to a funeral for someone they never even met? This is the question I found myself asking as I piled into a room full of about 40 people from my L’Arche community in Inverness, Scotland. The room was full of people wearing black, the room was also full of people wearing yellow. A core member (person with a developmental disability) named Fiona had recently passed away and her favourite colour was yellow. She liked the brightness of it and how it reminded her of the sun, of warmth, of laughter, and of friendship. She even moved into a L’Arche house named Grianan, the Scottish Gaelic word for “Sunshine”, directly linked in a duplex style housing to another house named Saorsa meaning “Freedom.” And that’s what Fiona was. She was free, even despite her physical and developmental limitations, because she knew she was loved and held by the care and support of many who loved her.
Her funeral was much longer than any other memorial I have ever attended, but time seemed to be suspended as core members and assistants alike shared poems, stories, and pictures of Fiona. As they said their final farewells and wrote on yellow cut-out hearts to be placed in a specially decorated box all the things they would have wished to have said to her but never had the opportunity.
Fiona’s boyfriend also spoke. He and Fiona had been partners for a long time. They went on trips together, shared meals together, and he visited her every Sunday at her house. He recounted a time when Fiona first asked them to be a couple. His exact words were that she said “you and I should be together so that we can make others laugh.” He even referred to her as “a cheeky little monkey” – a great term of endearment over here in Scotland.
I was off that day. I was under no obligation to attend her funeral. She hadn’t been part of the community for over 2 years as the result of her declining health which meant other arrangements had to be made. I never met her. So why should I use my free time to attend a community gathering as solemn as this? The answer is because I feel memorials are a way of respecting and honouring someone’s life. In our ableistic culture we tend to tote and idealize celebrities who pass away because we feel they have made a significant contribution to our world. When a movie star, singer, or actor dies his or her name is mentioned in all the newspapers and tabloids. When someone who has made a contribution in the field of medicine, scientific inquiry, theology, or psychology passes we feel a sense of gratitude for their commitment and inventions. But oftentimes, someone with a developmental disability can be ignored. And that’s not the way it should be. The Bible tells us that “God uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27) and L’Arche has taught me that God also uses those whom society deems unfit and even worthless to teach us what humanity, love, laughter, and life is really and truly all about.
Listening to people share that day brought me back to this place of realizing how everyone who walks this earth has something to share and contribute. Fiona was a person with a disability, but she was also so much more. She was a girlfriend, a daughter, a friend, a traveler, an adventurer, an explorer, a dancer, and that only begins to scratch the surface. When the box got passed to me to stick my little yellow heart into I wrote, “Dear Fiona, I never knew you, but you’ve left a legacy.” And that’s exactly how I felt. She taught assistants from around the world to interact with her and get to know her. Not for her disability, but for her personality. Not because they were paid to care for her, but because they entered into a community in which she was a part and in which she urged them to get close to her and to be her friend.
This week in community has been full of ups and downs. Death is not easy for anyone, and is especially difficult for people with disabilities to process. But we’ve also had laughs and joyous occasions. Also this week, one of our core members celebrated his 70th anniversary with great fanfare and a ceilidh band. In his own words, “birthdays are a way to thank someone for being born.” How true that is – people with disabilities are often shunned and sadly seen as a burden, but that’s not how it should be at all. So both in celebrating a birthday and in honouring the legacy of a great woman, the message is the same – thank you for being born, thank you for living, showing us yourself, and teaching us the true values of humanity and love. But most of all, thank you for your continuing life that whether in this world or the next continues to shine forth, proclaiming a message of equality, respect, and tolerance. Thank you that that message can impact even those you’ve never met because you have left a legacy.