EVERY so often I am prompted to think about life and death and what to make of everything in between. Often, and suitably, the prompt is my attendance at a funeral. I’ve attended quite a few funerals and I like them.
We also may enjoy learning more about the person as well as the people whose lives intersected with theirs. Insights can be instructive, often reminding us that we can’t assume we really know anyone entirely. The best funerals explore the person in light and shade and allow the full range of emotions to play out in mourners’ minds. A healthy mixture of sniffles and chuckles makes an ideal soundtrack to the ceremony.
It can be difficult, though, when the life that has passed can be reflected upon in too short a timeframe.
It was like that recently at the funeral of a young man who had died of a drug overdose. I’ve had a connection with his family over the past decade and a half and I’d seen him develop from a high-pitched 11-year-old infamous for irritating his cousins to become a young adult, lower pitched but still emitting a kind of restless exploratory buzz.
Maybe it was that restlessness that drew him to recreational drugs. His father spoke of how his son loved to push boundaries, and this last time just pushed too hard.
He went on to express how he had had to accept that his dreams for his son were his own, and did not match those of his son; that his son’s adult life was entirely his own to live regardless of what he, the father, might wish.
This pale man, reduced by grief to speaking softly when he would normally command the room, demonstrated a universal truth; no matter how much parents love their children, and how much the children love their parents, and tell them that they do, they are on a trajectory of their own. And in this case, one that propelled this son out of his parents’ orbit sooner than any of them could have expected.
Could there be anything positive about a funeral like this? It’s sad enough when anyone dies but for parents to have to bury a child, regardless of age or circumstance, is a disturbance of the natural order that raises the intensity of feeling by orders of magnitude.
Yet we in attendance had the opportunity to contemplate these insights:
First, that parenting is a tough gig. Everyone knows that, but here was a razor-sharp reminder that it can be a whirlpool of joy, sadness, pride, guilt, celebration and regret, and with no certainty of how things might turn out. People take on, or are handed, the task with no instruction manual, as one of my nephews ruefully mused shortly after the birth of his first daughter. It seems that the best that parents can do is be present, be themselves, and hang on for the ride.
Second, even though someone chooses a lifestyle we can’t identify with and don’t understand, it does not disqualify them from friendship and respect for what they may bring to the world. In the moments of the service set aside for private reflection, I recalled the last time I’d seen him. He and his mother had visited us briefly; he was excited about his recent move into a flat in one of Melbourne’s older suburbs, and while he could have enthused about its proximity to the night spots and entertainments what he chose to highlight was the pleasure of living among such architecture.
At his funeral the chapel was filled with this young man’s many friends, respectful, thoughtful young people, who spoke of his generosity and loyalty, his eclectic interests, his energy, how much they knew he had loved them, how much they would miss him. His life was too short, and lost tragically to drugs, but it could not be said to have been wasted. People who worked or played with him didn’t just meet him, they had an experience they would remember.
His funeral; an experience to match.