May 23 2015
I’ve lost several good, longtime friends in recent months and the experience has left me philosophically aware of the dwindling number who are still alive, prompting me to think about how precious they are, and how fortunate I am to have enjoyed the privilege of their friendship. But everybody dies, though few of us want to admit the truth of that, even to ourselves. Immortality is something we assume applies to us when we’re young, and as we grow older we continue to take it for granted, despite the evidence all around us indicating that its opposite, mortality, is in fact the common denominator that links us all together.
A friend in Britain—another writer—once asked me, “Have you ever noticed that deaths seem to come in threes?” I never had, but from that day I started to pay attention, and I was astonished to realize that what he had said appeared be true. Someone, somewhere would die, and I’d hear about it, and then within a matter of weeks would come awareness of someone else’s death—a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance—and then bingo, along would come number three. And then everything would settle down again for a while, until the next time.
I’ve been aware of that happening again recently—two sets of three in the past few months. Not all of those who died were close to me, but several were and I was surprised by the vehemence of my own reactions to reading their obituaries, and because of that I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about the rituals surrounding death in our society, and particularly about funeral services and memorial services.
Many years ago, before I even dreamed of being an author, when I was young and brash and made my living as a professional entertainer in Calgary, I had a well-to-do friend who hired me to sing at the funerals of each and every one of his aged relatives as they died. He was a bit older than I was—five or six years—but whereas I was the oldest of a large family of siblings, he was the sole representative of the last generation of his family. All his surviving relatives were far older than he was, and childless, and so he took it upon himself to arrange all their funerals as they came to pass.
He picked all the songs and music for each funeral, taking enormous pains to make sure that the services were memorable and the content always, unfailingly, pertinent to the occasion and tightly focused on the life of whichever relative we were dispatching. And one day, after having struggled to learn a particular old Presbyterian hymn, I asked him why he went to so much trouble, because I knew that some of the eldest people among them, aunts and uncles, were virtual strangers with whom he had spent very little time towards the end of their lives.
I have never forgotten his answer because, in almost less time than it takes to write it down, he put the whole matter of funerals and memorial services into perfectly clear perspective for me.
Seventy years, he said, is fundamentally what each of us is given to make what we will of our life, and at the end of it, if we are fortunate enough to have a funeral, the person who officiates at that service has half an hour or less in which to create a memorable image of us in the minds of the people there, encapsulating who and what we were, what we achieved during our lifetime, and what we contributed to those around us in the course of living…
It’s a ludicrously short amount of time in which to pay tribute to a lost friend or family member and to the lifetime attributes that earned him or her a significant place in our affections and memories, and because of that brevity, it entails a heavy responsibility for the person whose task it is to officiate. And that is why my friend always went to so much trouble to select music and songs, poems and readings and sometimes even prayers, that were relevant and appropriate to the memorial service being conducted: he became, for the purposes of that ritual, an impresario celebrating the brief but highly cherished existence of a man or a woman who had lived and loved and been loved in return; someone who had earned, in some manner, the right to be celebrated, remembered and perhaps even revered for being who and what they had been, and for what they had achieved and believed.
I’ve respected him for that revelation ever since, and I hope that when it’s my turn, there’s someone like him around to see me off in similarly fine fashion.