At the age of 80 I find I am attending funerals quite often and at the last one it occurred to me how like a performance the rituals are. There are religious ones with pre determined scripts and performers. These vary according to the religion of the deceased or rather their family’s. But more and more they vary in genre and form. One followed the director’s – in this case the deceased – directions faithfully. She had instructed how her funeral ceremony should be performed in minute detail: who would speak, the lines they would read, the poem they would declaim and the song they would sing. Some funerals feature the deceased as the heroine/hero of their own life as seen from different points of view. I was specially touched by the testimonies of two carers who looked after the 100 years old woman in the last years of her life. The soundtrack is as varied as the people, hymns, well-known music for the circumstance or even popular songs sang by the whole gathering. The testimonies can be heartbreaking when the performer is overcome by grief and cannot continue. More often even the testimonies are stereotyped: a lot about how great the person was with a hint of an anecdote to underline a human imperfection and elicit a smile or laugh of recognition. At one funeral some of the testimonies were so well written that they were applauded. Cremation and burial differ in form. At a West Indian burial ceremony a bottle of rum was circulated and the grave was filled up by male members of the family.
Very often in the case of people dying in their old age this is an occasion for long-lost friends and relatives to meet again and catch up with each other. The meeting before the ceremony is chatty, the reminiscences are not always about the deceased.
It is this public/private contrasting aspects that strike me every time. My feelings about death have been shaped in my very early childhood. Although as children we were not included in the proceedings or were even positively excluded, my memories are vivid. What I remember is my mother and aunts wearing all black for the day. Some even wore black for the whole year. Men wore a black armband. I remember walking with my mother and aunts and on passing a woman wearing black in the street the sentence was etched in my brain ‘Do you know who she has lost?”. The use of the concept of losing somebody intrigued me. Although not living in a close community to this day I think that wearing something to signal that the person is in mourning is a good idea. I remember the family sitting on the floor for days and a stream of people visiting to share their grief and make the time easier to bear. I remember that they were offered sweet cakes with the traditional coffee.
Most of all I remember the privacy of the event and I find it cruel that it is the custom nowadays for the bereaved to talk publicly to an audience who often barely knew the dead person. I find it incomprehensible that on television the bereaved are asked ‘How do you feel about the loss of your mother, your child, your friend?’ I find it incomprehensible that masses of people mourn a celebrity as if they were personally connected.
A film comes to mind. Alan Rickman’s The Winter Visitor that I need to view again and write about in my film blog. How is death, bereavement, and grief portrayed in films?