If you’re like me you’ve heard many of the older people in your family say things like, “Don’t fuss over me when I die,” or, “When I’m dead just throw me in a ditch.”
We accept their statements as expressions of not wanting to burden their family with the planning, cost, etc … but what are they really saying to us when they throw these quips out?
I think what they’re really saying is … “I’m not sure if my life mattered enough … I’m not worthy of anyone’s time … Would anyone go to my funeral? … Will someone please tell me I mattered!”
At least, that’s what I hear.
I don’t know a soul that isn’t horrified at the stories on the news where a body is found in a ditch – it’s tragic, unthinkable, and disrespectful. So, is that what these people think they deserve? While I desperately hope no one feels that way, I know that some do.
These sentiments can become problematic for the person’s family as well. Many of our families are looking to honor the wishes of their loved one and when permission is not given to honor the body or “fuss” over them, the family can feel guilt when more is wanted or deny their grief-needs altogether.
From what I have observed, families who do want to have a ceremony of some kind have had moving or significant prior experience. There, sadly, seem to be more families who have had the opposite experience. Perhaps they attended a funeral where the officiant said the wrong name, or they just find the experience too boring or sad. They have been denied the experience of a “good funeral” and therefore skip all manner of ceremony. Their last act in honor of their loved one is a signature in an office when it could be waiting with the casket as it is lowered into the earth, or escorting their loved one to the crematory and being present for the moment of release.
So why do we say things like “throw me in a ditch” and laugh? and what does it imply about our emotional approach to death?
I think at our core, there is a deep desire we have for others to make much of our lives. We have a need to matter and a great part of “being at peace,” I believe, is knowing with certainty that other lives were better because of ours.
Let me share a story I read in Doug Manning’s book “The Funeral” where he talks about his own father whose only wish was for the stereotypical pine box plus ditch. Doug comments that this is something “all men seem to feel the need to say, even though they don’t mean it.” He goes on to say, “I finally told [my dad] that the funeral was my gift to him and, if he did not mind, I would decide what kind of gift I would give. He was pleased and relieved. From that day on, we had to go through the funeral step-by-step every time I was with him.” (p. 19). He gave his dad the gift of knowing that someone would make much of his life, that someone wasn’t going to toss him in a ditch because his life really mattered.
I wonder how many families would come through our doors with a different mindset if they had only said to their loved one, “Look, we want to have a funeral for you, you’ve meant so much to us and we want to come together and remember you through stories, your favorite songs, and things that remind us of you. Please, let us do this.”
Wouldn’t that be a lovely conversation to have?
Beyond the fact that each of our lives (in my opinion) have mattered, it’s been statistically shown that families (especially children) who participate in a funeral ceremony for a loved one have a dramatically healthier grief journey. They are guided into acceptance through the ceremony vs. left in a world of denial without any signifier that the death has really happened.
I know blogs like these won’t change everyone’s mind but I do hope you will at least think about how each of our lives matter and find new ways to value and honor the ones you love.
– Would a conversation like that change your mind?
– Is there anyone in your life you have said something like this to or wish you had?
– Do you want a service or nothing? How come?
Great post Molly! I love that story you shared from The Funeral; if everyone could have these kind of conversations with their loved ones.
I would like to have a big ceremony over dinner for myself. Maybe have a good steak dinner with a memorial service. Something that is cheerful and filling!
Thanks for writing this post and to get to the nitty gritty of why most people don’t want to have a service.
Lauren, what a great idea! I don’t know a soul that doesn’t love gathering for a good meal and a great story – why not both? I think innovative ideas like that are the direction we are quickly heading in and you’re on top of it. I love it!
It is always interesting when people say things like “Do not fuss over me, put me out with the trash” they think they are doing their family a favor, when in fact, if the family followed those wishes they are doing more harm to their family than good. There is a reason we have these rituals and that these rituals have been performed since the dawn of man. We celebrate milestones all the time, births, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries etc. Why should we not celebrate and create a ritual for one of the biggest milestones that exists, death. What else is more important in this world than the relationships we have with each other as fellow human beings. Personally, I want the biggest, baddest funeral there ever was. I want people to cry, I want people to laugh and I want people to remember. Thanks Molly for reminding us.
Molly, thank you for addressing this topic. I start this conversation with the families I serve & many times they end it quickly. I try again a bit later in the arrangement meeting & in a different way, usually with the same result. The third try has to be very creative so I don’t upset them, but I have actually been successful at times in this last attempt to explain the reason a ceremony is so beneficial to the surviving family & friends. I so appreciate you shedding light on this subject as it is very needed in our society. I believe this conversation happens in the home because of our death phobia- nobody wants to think about it, let alone talk about it. This response is mostly because we just want the conversation to end immediately. This makes me sad. We truly need to find a comfort level in these conversations so that we can gain the benefit of ceremony. Thank you so much for shining a light on this need! Love, Carrie
I know how hard you work to help families understand the benefits of a communal ceremony that doesn’t exclude or leave out anyone. Can I just tell you that I don’t know if there are many things more worthy of fighting for in our profession? THAT ceremony is a gift to so many if they will only take it.
You touch on the interesting problem of the “conversation”. Why are these so difficult to have? What makes us want to end them rather than consider or debate the facts? Your point makes me wonder about the difficulties of “talking” when it comes to death – perhaps a future blog post for us ; )
Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, I so respect and value it!
Oh thank you Rosemary! I think it’s such a nice and accurate way to think about what the funeral is. If the dying person realized the funeral is for the living – a way to let them celebrate and mourn in public the person they loved – I think we would see more healthy grief in our world.
Thank you so much for reading, I’m glad it resonated with you.
Your story gave me chills. What a poignant and tragic example of a woman denied an experience she would forever treasure. One of the hardest things about funerals is as a society, we treat them like weddings where you really only have “one shot” at making it happen. It grieves me to hear of people left bereft of something that would have given them so much. Her husband, no doubt thought he was caring for her with his words but instead left her unable to find a place for her grief and need to make meaning.
I can’t thank you enough for sharing your story – it’s so powerful and quite the testament to your point, “Funerals are (and always have been) for the living.”