Our plans for the weekend have changed unexpectedly. A friend died earlier this week and we have to juggle our schedule so that we can attend his memorial service on Sunday. We weren’t all that close, more a friend of a friend, but we always respected the man. We will definitely be there on Sunday.
Someone, somewhere along the way, once observed that we spend the first half of our lives attending weddings and the second half attending funerals. At 55, I find myself agreeing.
Except that in California, the funeral seems to have been replaced by the memorial service. I’ve been out here for 21 years and the California goodbye seems to be a lot different than what I remember from growing up in the Midwest.
In Illinois, we had funerals. Someone died and we would gather at either the funeral home or local church. The casket was often left open and the ceremony usually religious in flavor. Then the mourners would pile into a long procession of cars, all with headlights turned on, guided by a somber motorcycle cop, who led us to a nearby cemetery for a second graveside service.
Everything was shaded in gray and black, just like in a scene from “The Sopranos.”
But California apparently likes to be different, even in death. When friends and colleagues have died, Charlotte and I found ourselves at memorial services instead of funerals. I don’t think I’ve attended a single funeral.
What’s the difference? According to one funeral home website I checked, “A funeral is a service of remembrance of a person in which the body of the deceased is present in the casket. The funeral includes or is followed by burial of the casket.
“A memorial service, on the other hand, does not have the body present or the element of delivering the body to its final rest. Usually it focuses almost exclusively on celebration and remembrance of the person’s life.”
So on those sad occasions, we have gathered literally all over town to attend memorial services large and small. We have been to ceremonies on the beach, on the stage at San Luis Little Theatre, and in the bar of the Madonna Inn. We’ve gone to local parks, Mission Plaza, and stood at the end of the pier in San Simeon.
Part of the trend is explained by the rise in the popularity of cremation. The Cremation Association of North America claims that by 2010, cremation levels in the U.S. will be two out of every five, with urban popularity higher than rural.
If you’re being cremated, as most of our friends have been, there is no need for a traditional funeral. So, and please excuse the pun, people really are thinking outside the box about how they wish to say goodbye.
The tone in these memorial services has shifted to being more celebratory, more of a tribute to a life well lived, a healthy mixture of laughter and tears. We have gone from being a passive audience staring quietly at a casket to active participants who help give the deceased’s life meaning through stories, poetry, and song.
Ashes have been taken “to a special place,” it is often announced and we all feel better knowing that our friend is now wherever he or she was always happiest.
I much prefer that to seeing an open casket. A former boss of mine died a few years ago and I went to the funeral home to pay my respects. I was jarred by the sight of him laid out – this was not how I wanted to remember the man. I made a mental note to avoid open caskets in the future.
The only drawback to living a long life is that not all of our friends and family get to come along with us. The longer we live, the more we have to say goodbye to others.
There are far too many memorial services in my future and I suppose I should be thinking about my own sometime if I want a say in what happens. I’ll deal with that after the more pressing question of whether I really want to join AARP.
The death of a friend or loved one is never easy and I know I’ll be sad on Sunday. But I’ll also find comfort in the stories and the tributes that will come pouring out. A few laughs. A touch of hope. A salute to a life well-lived.
No better way to say goodbye.
SLO City News (May 2008)