Being human means you’re going to experience loss and sadness. Life means that one day you’ll die, and also that everyone you know will die too, sometime. I lost my mother last week. She’s been sick for a long time, off and on over the last thirty years, but she rarely complained about it. “I’m not sick, I just can’t breathe,” was the answer she’d give to enquiries about her health. The hospital admissions were gradually getting closer and closer together, then: “You’d better come down, the doctors think this is it.” I flew 5 hours home and arrived at the hospital in time to find the priest administering the Last Rites, members of the family gathered by the bed. I was able to share a few precious last hours with her and my family as she slipped away from us.
Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about death, funerals, and ritual.
My five siblings and I are all ex-Catholics, but we said the Rosary for Mum by her bedside, knowing it would comfort her to hear it. We arranged a full Catholic Requiem Mass for her, and we joined in the prayers and the hymns. I don’t believe it matters whether or not you subscribe to the religion in which a funeral is conducted: what is important is the ritual.
I first understood this when a close Aboriginal friend died while my family and I lived in Arnhem Land. His funeral lasted for well over a week, each day bringing a new set of rituals and ceremony to be conducted according to ancient Aboriginal traditions. There was a time to wail and weep, a time to perform specific dances and chants, a time to be daubed with red ochre and wreathed in smoke, a time to eat, a time to rest, and a time to start it all again. By the end we were exhausted, physically and emotionally, but we felt as though we had grieved, and said goodbye.
Three years ago I lost my only daughter, at 16. We were in Thailand when it happened, and my husband and I were offered a Buddhist funeral ceremony by the local temple. As we both respect the Buddhist approach to living, we accepted the offer. Like the Arnhem Land funeral, the rituals were ancient and lengthy. It didn’t matter that we didn’t understand the words, or the ceremonies. We understood the respect and honour being voiced for a human being who had died, the acknowledging of her human existence and her departure to another one, whatever form that may be. The rituals spread across three days, and by the end we were exhausted and spent, but we felt we had grieved. It didn’t mean the sadness and loss were gone, far from it, but having so ritually mourned her death within a specific structure, we had marked her passing as something significant.
Again, this time with my mother, different religion, different ceremony, different words, but all to the same end: this is a time to grieve and to honour the person who has died. The days of preparation brought my brothers and sisters closer together, and buoyed up our father. It doesn’t mean the grieving is over. But it gives it a shape, and progresses what is a necessary and unavoidable journey.
Sometimes I think our modern society throws the baby out with the bath water. We have dispensed with so many rituals we used to observe – not necessarily religious – that celebrated the various stages of human life. Maybe we need to think about the purpose they served. Rest in peace, my lovely Mum.