Funerals are for the living

Funerals have come a long way since I was a boy. I was often called out of school to perform the role of altar boy at funeral services for local Catholic parishioners in South Dunedin and they were all similar mundane affairs.

The casket was there of course but always closed. There was never a eulogy and just a few references to the person by name during the service but without any personality attached. The purpose of the service followed the purpose of life which was to prepare for death. Once the grim reaper came calling the task was to pray for the soul of the deceased to be delivered via a merciful God to the joys of heaven rather than the eternal damnation of hell.

It’s hard to generalize from South Dunedin but it seems such experiences were similar across the country – in pakeha communities at least.

Nowadays however things are much healthier. Largely released from a one-dimensional view of death even traditional religious services are now more a celebration of life than a dirge for the dead. People grieve openly with laughter and tears as they share publicly their recollections and anecdotes of the life of the deceased.

Other positive changes have rubbed off from Maori and Irish culture. Often now the body will be taken back to the family home to lie in an open casket in the days before the service. Relatives, friends and neighbours pay their respects formally and informally while the daily routines of life continue.

One recent development I’m not a fan of is the printing of T-shirts with an image of the deceased person by which to show a public display of remembrance. It seems to me a bit tacky. Remembering is surely just that – what each of us takes away from the service with our personal memories and the shared recollections of others rather than putting on a display for strangers.

All this came to mind as I attended a relative’s funeral in Napier last weekend. He was an 89 year old much loved uncle from my childhood. Last Wednesday he biked to the local fish and chip shop to get a meal for himself and my auntie. When the order was ready the shop owner noticed he appeared asleep and tried to rouse him but to no effect. CPR was performed on the shop floor and an ambulance was called but a history of heart problems meant it was a fruitless exercise.

There was unanimous agreement in the family that it was a great way to go. A more kiwi passing would be hard to find.

The funeral notice used an Anzac Day photo of him as an old soldier at the Napier dawn parade which had appeared on the front page of Hawkes Bay Today a couple of years previously. As he had every year before he’d turned up in his medals to take part in a service to remember his fellow soldiers who died fighting fascism in Europe.

My uncle’s service was more traditional than “modern” as he specifically requested no eulogy.

Because he was an old soldier the Returned Services Association organised the playing of the last post and members of the Marist Third Order of Mary paid their own prayerful tribute to an unassuming New Zealander who was helpful, compassionate and forever self-effacing.

After the service at the graveside the family pitched in to fill the grave. Several shovels, including his own, were shared around. Having done this at several funerals in recent years I think it’s a more helpful way than most in saying a final goodbye.

Ironically he’d been at a funeral service for another old soldier just the day before his death and had come home to discuss his own funeral arrangements with my auntie. Just four days later he was buried in the grave next to the burial he’d attended earlier in the week.

He’d never had children but made up for it as a loved uncle to so many as well as a scout leader with a big, appreciative reputation.

The fish and chip shop is in Napier’s poorest neighbourhood and as people gathered they were turned away at the door by a police officer. The policeman told the family later that all the local kids said they knew the old man and they said he’d always spoken to them the same – meaning it was always kindly and respectfully. A small thing perhaps but one which carried a significant experience for the kids.

As in all deaths his legacy remains with the living.