For many years now I have been both pleased and troubled by the trend of turning funerals and memorial services into “celebrations.”
Pleased because the “celebratory” theme does justice, in a profound way, to the whole of a person’s life and character and resounding impact upon those who still live.
Troubled because I fear it can easily lapse into denial and suppression of the honest, healing emotion of grief.
Case in point: the altogether remarkable tale of Betsy Davis, the 41-year-old woman with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease who took her own life last week, but not before she threw an extravagant two-day party for some 30 close friends and relatives to “celebrate” her life at her home in Ojai.
There was much to admire in Davis’s decision to take charge of her own fate in sovereign possession of her own body, about as fundamental a right as we can or should conjure in any world where freedom is an abiding value.
That assertion was particularly poignant given the nearly complete betrayal of her body by ALS, the surpassingly cruel disease that robs its victims of virtually every last shred of muscular control, leaving them completely helpless even to speak or shoo a fly off their nose—while keeping their minds totally intact. That Davis used her mind to reassert control of her body is a testament to both her own strong will and the decision by the California legislature last year to grant her and others that right with passage of the “End of Life Option Act.”
If I were ever to find myself in the same position as Davis, I would not long hesitate to exercise the same option.
Would Betsy Davis have suffered all the more if some of her friends at various times had buried themselves momentarily in her neck, leaving a few tears on her dress as they told her how much they loved her and how much it was going to hurt when she was gone?
But there was an unfortunate part, in my view, to Davis’s celebratory theme. She invited her beloveds from around the country to come wish her farewell in a freewheeling weekend of reminiscence, appreciation, art, and basic conviviality that had but one rule: “Do not cry in front of me.” It’s an understandable enough sentiment. One can’t hep but sympathize with Davis’s fate and allow her great latitude in seizing whatever control of it she could.
Nevertheless, I think she was wrong in placing restrictions on her guests’ emotional expressiveness. Those emotions rightly belonged to them, not to her, and both she and they were robbed of something precious and essential by denying them the full range and expression of the emotions they were experiencing.
So: some words in praise of mourning.
Davis’s restrictive approach to emotional expression at her party was in line with a now long-running trend that frame all memorial observances as “celebrations of life.”
It is a trend I have been keeping a somewhat wary eye on over the years.
More problematic and restrictive still: death announcements in the morning paper stating that “No services will be held.” (This usually at the deceased’s request.)
Whatever self-effacing humility this decision may reflect, and however ardently it may have been expressed by the departed when they were alive, I can’t help but think there is a kind of selfishness tucked deeply into such notices.
Don’t these people realize that memorial services aren’t about them, but about consoling the living?
The deceased is gone now—it is their loved ones who have to pick up the pieces of their loss and try to forge on, their hearts an open wound that benefits from care-full tending. Memorial observances are a major element of that care-fullness.
My problem with Davis’s well-enough-intentioned request was that it required a kind of emotional dishonesty on the part of her guests. Surely we can all imagine the great surges of complex emotion attending an event where a beloved has gathered us to celebrate, remember, and revel in the glories of relationship and our regard for one another.
Of course we can respond with gladness and gratitude for her role in our lives, the rewards of having been in relationship with her.
Of course we can respond to the request in her invitation to come “speak your mind, dance, hop, sing, chant, pray.”
Of course we can do our utmost to do so with good cheer and smiles, lingering hugs and expressions of deep joyous affection.
And of course we have to be deeply sad, too, awash in grief and lamentation. It could not be otherwise, unless we are made of stone.
That Davis sought to quell these natural, healthy, and necessary expressions of emotional honesty put a terrible burden on her guests, forcing them to fend off the feelings no doubt welling up inside them at various times through the weekend, seeking the oxygen that would allow them expression rather than the airless repression required by their host.
Am I saying the weekend should have been awash in grief?
I am saying the weekend should have been awash in emotional honesty and the full range of human expression. That is the most we can ever bring to this life, and it is all the more important and fundamental when any person has reached the end of it, hopefully shorn of all compulsion to repress its full, raw, animating spirit.
What is full and raw and true when someone dear to us is dying is that we are deeply saddened, even temporarily crushed, while also being able to acknowledge and experience, in celebratory fashion, at a wake or party, the joy they brought to our lives.
All of those feelings are true and worthy of deep immersion by those who harbor them.
All of them should be allowed the light of day and healthy emotional expression.
It is perhaps a strange twist on our legacy of Puritanism in this country that we tend to refrain from demonstrative emotional expressions of mourning, for which we substitute, ironically, a “party” honoring the deceased.
Not for us to beat our breasts, wail to the heavens and throw our bodies on a passing casket, as is common in some other parts of the world.
But such operatic extravagance is, I think, truer to the deepest emotional currents flowing through us humans in response to any loved one’s passing than is either stoic acceptance or partying “celebration.”
Years ago, I was a Hospice volunteer and a patient’s family called me as the man was obviously slipping away. When I drove down and rang the doorbell, I was met by a relative who sternly informed me that she had let everyone who had gathered there know there would be no “long faces” around the bedside of the dying man.
Ushering me back to the family room that had been temporarily converted to his death chamber, I was shocked to encounter a raucous party-like atmosphere, with perhaps 25 people arranged in a semicircle of chairs around his hospital bed where he lay barely conscious.
The mood was of partying, laughing, and carrying on while the beer and wine flowed. It felt both surreal (“Where am I? Can this really be happening?) and like a violation to me, some deep affront to all that is sacred about life, and death.
Part of me felt like doing some old-time prophet thing, breaking a chair and shouting, “Out, out, all of you, just get the hell out of here and go away somewhere quiet to think about your sorry lives!”
Only to realize, of course, that they knew not what they were doing, and indeed, may have been simply and dutifully following the dictates of the relative, who may well have been simply and dutifully following the dictates of the dying man’s wife, who may herself have been channeling her upbringing in an emotionally restrained household.
And so it goes, the buttoned up inner lives of our forebears perpetuating their own legacy and requiring our compassion upon compassion upon understanding and forgiveness, forevermore…
Oh, the webs we weave and entangle ourselves in when confronting the sticky emotions of life, chief among them the loss of those we love.
In the end, we work this out as best we are able, given our emotional equipment and the climate of the surrounding culture. In my own view, laughter and celebration can and ideally should occur alongside of and interwoven with our mourning for departing or departed loved ones. But they are not a substitute for it.
Would Betsy Davis have suffered all the more if some of her friends at various times had buried themselves momentarily in her neck, leaving a few tears on her dress as they told her how much they loved her and how much it was going to hurt when she was gone? At which they could smile and make a joke, even, about Betsy needing to change her dress or sit a few moments in the sun to let it dry?
Or would she perhaps have felt even fuller, with a more gladdened heart, for the beautiful deep honesty, the profound mixture of joy (for Betsy’s life) and grief (for Betsy’s death) that would have been conveyed in those unvarnished expressions of care?
Betsy had her final party, and may God rest her courageous, and from all reports, creative and joyous soul. But I find myself wishing I were one of those friends she’d summoned to help her exit this life.
I like to think I would’ve called her beforehand, perhaps even asked to come out a day early, so I could take her unmoving hands in mine, look her in her still-feeling and expressive eyes and say:
“Let it all go, Betsy. Let all of us go, too. All the joy, all the fear, all the anticipation, all the gratitude, all the expression, all the uncertainty, all the tears, all the regret, all the hesitation and restrictions on anything and everything that would prevent the expression of our shared, and fully bared, humanity. Just let it go. Be home in it all.”
The mournful, haunting quality of this song written by Sting is made all the more so by the fate of singer Eva Cassidy, who died at age 33, the long, musically rich life ahead of her cut tragically short by cancer.
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Well, Andrew, in one short week you have helped us traverse both birth and death, with equal measures of awareness and grace. Birth and death, the bookends of life, and so much richer for honest reflection and witness, and encouragement to be brave, real and truly present.
Hadn’t considered that, Angela, glad you noticed. I suppose that means I should write about middle age next, but I think I’m too old for that now!
Andrew, I’m not sure she asked them not to grieve; but just not to do it in front of her. Perhaps she would have felt the need to try and comfort them.
Good point, Gerry, thanks for making that distinction. It’s reasonable to assume guests didn’t have to stay buttoned up outside of her presence, so they could have wailed to the heavens, for all we know. That said, the very nature of such an event is so fraught with emotions it still strikes me as restrictive to prohibit their expression. There’s such a fine line sometimes between keeping it all together and tears—that’s why we so frequently describe someone as “bursting” into them. (One second they’re on this side, all calm, the next, the dam breaks and they’re over there, a mess…) So I am imagining some very difficult moments of people expressing themselves caringly to her and then having to flee the room in a hurry lest they shed a tear in front of her. That’s unfortunate, I think, even though I get, as you say, that she may have wanted to avoid the whole grief-comfort interaction with 30 guests all weekend.
You have tackled a difficult subject, especially in Western Culture, or perhaps I should say multi culture. I suspect that Betsy’s desire had something to do with her social and religious upbringing. Unlike some cultures, Americans have no single myth to which we can turn when we are in times of grief and final departure. I remember my days as a fundamentalist Christian minister, when I would be expected to “preach a funeral.” These times of grief by the family were used as a pretext for evangelizing the audience. Talk about a skewed understanding of death and grieving. So as not to throw all Christianity under the bus, many religious groups do provide a healthy place for family and friends to remember and grieve the loss of a loved one. Nevertheless, these days many Americans are being born and die without any spiritual view of life and death, so when death comes people don’t seem to know quite what to do. It’s too bad that there isn’t a group like Hospice to provide some kind of structure for the family of a deceased loved one.
Andrew, thanks for opening such a rich topic for us all. Having been to my own father’s “celebration of life” a little more than two years ago, your article resonates deeply with me. My mother had a traditional Jewish funeral at which we all were invited to throw dirt on her coffin. There was no escaping the tears at that funeral.
We didn’t know Betsy Davis and whether what she asked of her guests was what was best for her. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s not a bit like inviting friends to a birthday party and requesting no presents. Might there have been a piece of her hungry for the sadness of her friends, especially in someone who denied such an immensely human part of herself?
Thanks for encouraging us to open some of our potentially deepest wounds to the healing air.
Nice. My daughter’s fiance committed suicide and she wanted everyone to wear bright colors to the service. “Not me,” I told her, “I’m grieving. I’ll be wearing black.” When my husband died I wore black for a year. Colors just seemed so brittle and artificial and futile. I’m for authenticity above all else.
Robert, there’s a whole other kettle of fish to be explored on the subject of proper rituals and myths in a steadily more secularizing culture. It presents serious challenges, which is why even completely agnostic secular people still tend to grope toward a church setting for major life events such as births, weddings and funerals (though they rarely do so very comfortably). In a desacralizing culture, the dark hovering cloud is that crass materialism and carnival barking will step in to fill the void and distract the masses. Oh, wait…might that already be happening??
Al, the fact that we didn’t know Betsy and were not privy to what were surely complexities of her motivation made me hesitant to pass any judgement on her. In a slight twist to what Gerry said above, another friend wrote me and suggested that Betsy perhaps needed to restrict others’ emotional expression as a way to be able not only to manage her own emotions, but also to make sure that her courage didn’t fail her in following through with the suicide. May well be some truth to that, and part of me wishes we could ask Betsy about it now. All I know for sure is that her story offers tremendous food for thought on multiple fronts, and the discussion around it will have nothing but greater impact as the Baby Boomer population bulge works its way through this life and on to the great beyond…
Francine, what a rich mine you’re drilling into there, with the very specific and practical questions of, “What do we even wear to a (funeral, memorial, celebration…) when a person dies (of old age, as a child, committed suicide…). What does that particularity say about all the larger issues that death and grieving entail? And how do we properly honor our dead? Let the champagne flow as we prowl the party in our flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts? Maybe it always depends on context, the nature and circumstances of the death, even how much time may have elapsed between the death and the observance? I have definitely observed a distinct difference between memorials a week or two following a death and those that occur the following spring, when the flowers are blooming. Thanks for raising this point as well. There’s a wonderful starkness to the question, “Orange and yellow or all black?”
Wow! I’m in awe of your taking on such a profound and universal subject, and both your blog article and the exchange with others in comments touch on so many fundamental questions – the wishes of the dying, the legitimate needs and feelings of those left behind, and of course, the metaphysical question of what death means to our lives and what, if anything, comes next.
My first reaction is to agree with you that the request to forbid mourning and insist on “celebration” smacks of selfishness and creates emotional dishonesty, and yet it is difficult for me to judge and condemn that desire on the part of the dying one – I haven’t walked in those shoes yet.
As you know, I’ve left the fold of caucasian-dominated evangelical Christianity and its smug certainty, but I retain an abiding faith in a God who created, who cares and who will be there with us throughout our eternal journey. Certainly this is reason to celebrate as I prepare for the next ride on the cable car (nod to your part of the world) and personally, I’d like my mourners/party go-ers to tip a few craft brews for me and mix their suds with tears (I hope there will be at least a few who will be sad to see me go!)
Anyway, I commend you for a great blog post and for challenging us all to think about a subject which every one of us will have to face sooner or later.
Thanks for your kind words, David. Like you, I approach any judgement of another’s motives and situation, especially one as dire as Betsy faced, with a great deal of trepidation, and I’m glad that virtually all my commenters, some offline, struggled a bit with that part of this post (as did I). Ultimately, the larger points lurking behind this specific situation made the risk of sitting in judgment worth it to me, but it’s not something I ever take lightly. It’s so much easier and more pleasurable to criticize, you know, Donald Trump!
And Bro, if it turns out you hop on that celestial cable car before me, suds & tears will be the order of the day as I bid you adieu, I assure you…