Imagine you have a 6-year old child named Sarah. [Don’t worry, Sarah doesn’t die in this example]. An invitation arrives in the mail for a birthday party for Sarah’s closest kindergarten friend, Grace. Everything seems normal except for a brief note on the invitation:
“Given that Grace’s grandfather died last month, please respect our decision to not have any displays of humor, laughter, or joy at Grace’s birthday party.”
You are not sure if this is some strange joke or family custom, but Sarah is very excited about the party so you decide to attend.
As you enter Grace’s home, you do not see any typical signs of a birthday party. No balloons, no streamers, no decorations at all. Furthermore, there is no cake, ice cream, cupcakes, or other traditional birthday desserts. Everyone is asked to sit at the table and eat ham and cheese sandwiches. A few gifts are opened, but Grace is instructed not to smile or express joy in any way. Grace’s mother says a quiet, “Thank you for coming” and Grace is instructed to quietly shake Sarah’s hand goodbye as if she were completing a business transaction.
Weird, right? Is it difficult to imagine such a party for a 6-year old? Of course it is. Because this never happens. Certainly there are birthday parties that happen during difficult circumstances. Perhaps a loved one has died recently, or no invitees show up, or the 6-year old has a terrible illness, or the family doesn’t have money for gifts. But even in these situations, the goal of the party is always to be happy and festive. To celebrate this person’s life and life in general.
How does this relate to funerals? Increasingly, I hear people say they want their funeral to be a party. Even more often, they say, “I don’t want anyone to be sad at my funeral.” But there is a big problem with that:
We don’t get to tell people how to feel.
Telling others you don’t want them to be sad at your funeral is like telling a 6-year old, “Come to my birthday party, but don’t be happy.”
Imagine a beloved family member who is alive. Perhaps a spouse, parent, sister, brother, cousin, child, or best friend. Now, just for a moment, imagine they have suddenly died….. Do you feel like partying?
Don’t get me wrong. I think it is great to think ahead about how you would like to be remembered. I believe everyone should plan their own funeral or memorial service in advance (after talking with your family and keeping their needs in mind). I also believe that funerals can be a celebration of life. You can create a service that focuses on the highlights of your life and has an uplifting tone. A well-planned funeral or memorial service can certainly include laughter and funny stories. But a service works best when it respects the entire range of human emotions associated with a loss including grief and sadness.
Don’t place unrealistic expectations on your family and friends by saying, “I don’t want anyone to cry at my funeral” or “I want to have a party instead of a funeral.”
When loved ones die, we grieve.
It doesn’t matter if a loved one dies when they are 55 or 105 years old. It doesn’t matter if death was expected or sudden. [And you can’t bypass experiencing grief by not having a funeral or memorial service. Loved ones will grieve if you have a service or not – the only difference is that they will receive the benefit of support and ritual if you have a service.]
Our natural response to the death of a loved one is grief. Please don’t handcuff your family and friends by making them promise to have a “party” in place of your funeral. “Funeral Parties” are as unnatural as a joyless birthday party for a 6-year old. Remember that allowing your loved one to experience grief will ultimately aid in their healing.