As I walked through this day, I remained keenly aware of the sadness that has tagged along with me. The after effects of the sudden death of a work colleague yesterday have lingered, so everything I did today seemed to take longer, my steps were a little slower. I have been reflecting on the tenuous hold we have on this life and how much I would love to remember this when I am sniping at my partner over something small, or expressing irritation with my well-loved canine, companion, or feeling detached or disconnected or disengaged from work colleagues (even though I spend a significant amount of time with them.)
The other day I was having lunch with one of those work colleagues. We talked about many things related to our families, our upbringing, and–interestingly–about loss. They told me that after the death of one of a close family member, there was no funeral right after the death, but that a few months later, they’d held a memorial service. Some of them found it extremely disorienting; they didn’t feel a sense of closure. The last time they’d seen that loved one, she had been alive, not well, but alive nonetheless. Then they heard she had died. But none of them went to a service, saw her body, stood at her gravesite, or even gathered together to mourn or celebrate her life until months later.
I was struck by their story because it reminded me that such rituals, rites and ceremonies are less for the person who has died and more for those who remain. It caused me to totally rethink my “last wishes” about what might happen after my own departure from this earth plane. I had decided, among other things, that after donating every part of my body that doctors, hospitals, or scientists would find useful, I would be cremated. I did not want a grave or a headstone or marker of any kind, because I didn’t want my kids to come “visit” me. My rationale was that my spirit would be wherever they needed it to be, that it didn’t matter where the shell that was my body was.
For a long time after my mother had died, every time I went to her gravesite, I cried with fresh, renewed grief. I didn’t find it comforting to visit her grave, it was deeply distressing to me. So when I’d go back to my hometown, I eventually stopped visiting her grave. After a while, I couldn’t even remember where to find it in the cemetery. My brother, on the other hand, visited regularly (and still does), tending to the shrubs and grass and flowers that he planted there. I think he probably couldn’t imagine not visiting, while for me it is pretty much the opposite. After my father died and was laid to rest beside my mother, I found that I could look upon their graves with much less distress than I had during those early days. It was the sadness I’d felt at my parents grave that made me design the “last wishes” I described above.
My conversation with my colleague got me thinking about my self-centered notions of how I wanted things to be after my death–what I did and didn’t want, and so forth. I decided that I would ask my children and family what they want to do, how they might want it to be. At the end, it is totally about those who remain, and not about me at all. My spiritual beliefs are not tied to a rite or ritual that says one thing or another must be done in order for me to go into the afterlife in some particular way. And so I will invite them to co-create with me a celebration, a commemoration that will bring comfort to them. And while everyone might not agree on the various elements right away, it feels like an important conversation to have.
Jesus knew he was going to die, and did his best to prepare his close friends for the inevitable. He shared with them what was going to happen, what had to happen. And he gave them several important rituals that they could engage in as a means of remembering him. Millions of people around the globe, two millennia later, still engage in those rituals of remembrance. “Do these things in memory of me.”
We are now 31 days into the Lenten season, with two short weeks remaining. As people around the world continue to commemorate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own lives–how we live, love, and celebrate the people around us, are be present for and with them, and how we live in the moment, each moment, as best we can. At the end of days, if I can say I did that more often than not, it will have been a life well lived.