Why I Went to a Funeral for Someone I Never Knew

Yellow-Flowers-Coreopsis-Walters-Gardens-Inc  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.

A Living Death: Dying While We’re Wide Awake

white-flowers-in-hands  Death.  It is the thing we fear the most.  The inevitable state that propels us to endlessly ponder life’s intrinsic meaning.  It is the event that creates the most unease for while we know there is no way to escape it, we somehow hope we will be the exception.  We regard death as the greatest enemy of the human soul – the one that snuffs out all we have lived and worked for and the great equalizer of persons.  Many of us view the dying process as being intensely lonely and marked with regret, pain, and suffering.  Yet, in some strange way, we are grotesquely enamoured by it.  We are intrigued by the unknowable and it has resulted in our cultural preoccupation with angels, demons, and all things other-worldly.  We are drawn to it at the same time as we are trying to hold it at a distance.  This strange dichotomy has existed since the beginning of time, yet, death has now found its market and its niche in the Western soul.  We have commercialized death in every way possible: large advertisements for funeral homes, expensive caskets, life memory boxes for those who live on.  We have turned death into a multiple million dollar industry that is sure to never go out of business.  All the while, one is forced to ask: why?  Are we doing this because psychologically we want to move on, spiritually we want to cling to some naïve hope that there is truly something beyond the grave, or because in some twisted way we see death as entertaining – something that is sure to happen to everyone else.  Except us?

Recently, I have come across many thought provoking articles on the issue of death, and as I am preparing to enter into a chaplaincy vocation, have been forced to compete with these many viewpoints for myself.  Two articles in particular have greatly influenced my thinking on this topic.  In the first article, the author whose name I presently cannot recall mentioned that death is the most recurring theme portrayed in the media.  It seems that every T.V. show and movie has some dark element of death attached to it.  Our culture is in love with Twilight, Murder Mysteries, and the Zombie Apocalypse.  Young adults are fascinated by vampires, ghosts, and the world of the undead.  This phenomena has piqued such interest that I have known a handful of graduate students who have written extensive academic papers on topics such as these.  Including yours truly.  Yet, the author in question believes that such preoccupation stems from the very fact that we see death only as something that takes place in the movies.  You see, movies are the place where fact and fiction come together in a convincing enough way, while still reminding the human soul that what is occurring on the screen is not truly happening.  This is why many of us are able to watch the most horrible tales of wars and brutal shootings, while remaining relatively emotionally detached.  We can recognize that such things ought not to happen, while at the same time reminding ourselves that they likely never will occur.  At least not to us.  It would be virtually impossible to find a mature, educated adult who still believes in Peter Pan or Mary Poppins.  In the same way, it is becoming increasingly harder to find anyone who still believes in the reality of death.

In the second article, “Is Hell Dead?”  Pastor Rob Bell spoke to Time Magazine and addressed the issue of whether or not there was really anything beyond this life.  The end result was that fewer and fewer North Americans believe in the reality of heaven or hell.  Most people today either believe that this life is all there is or else they believe that heaven exists but not hell.  They have a philosophy which says everyone will end up in heaven one day and those who have done terrible things will simply cease to be.  In a sense, it hardly seems fair.

Nevertheless, I find myself wrestling with this question of “is hell dead?” for there is a part of me that once again feels this is little more than a defence mechanism – a belief that we will live on forever.  After all, if there is nothing that will occur after this life, we need not fear or focus on anything but this present reality.  This can be beneficial in a way for it has the ability to propel us to reach our highest potential for good recognizing that since we will never have a second chance, we should at least impact the world in some great way.  However, this belief also comes at a dangerous cost.  It is a cost which fails to address the inevitable, so when death happens (even after years of illness), we are all struck blindsided by it.

Our culture is little more than a “Tuck Everlasting” culture.  A culture which tries to advance itself medically and ethically, though without ever finding a resolution for what is bound to occur.  The honest truth is that we are not in control, and that absolutely freaks us out.  We like to have our lives planned, but the reality is that none of us truly knows how much longer we have.  We can try to eat healthy, exercise, and treat people with kindness, but ultimately good health and karma can only get you so far.  And they can’t get you passed the inevitable threshold of this world to the next.

Is this a depressing blog post?  Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be.  You see, death doesn’t have to be this pretend reality, this scary and lonely time, or this fearful event to be avoided.  However, it does have to be addressed.  We cannot continue to hide behind this cultural façade of avoidance.  If we truly want to heal and find hope, we need to believe in something more.  We need to believe that there is good and that there is even better.  We need to believe that there is life beyond the grave.  It is only in doing so that we can move from denial into a glorious hope which enables us to do great things, to reach our full potential, and then to encourage others to reach theirs.  It is only in doing so that death loses its sting and gains its respect.