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Portrait of the dead Caspar of Uchtenhagen in ...

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This may seem like a morbid subject, but really I don’t mean it to be. I’m curious more than anything, and I guess doubly so given that it has personal relevance to me right now.

Mum went to the funeral parlour this morning to pick out a coffin and make arrangements for when the time comes. We don’t know when that will be, but mum tends to think soon – say the next 6-8 weeks (or sooner), and would be happy for it. I’m not so sure of that and try not to anticipate one way or the other, though it’s hard not to. It’s natural that it plays on your mind, that each ‘good’ day leads you to think it might not be so bad, and each ‘bad’ day (which has become ‘normal’) leads you to wonder how soon. It can be torturous if you’re not careful, which means that some distance is occasionally necessary (unfortunately impossible for mum). Anyway, I digress.

The idea today was to get it all sorted – the coffin, the music, the trimmings and small touches, and so on. I was busy elsewhere and asked my sister to take mum along. One of us needed to be there to know what’s been arranged – mum won’t be around to refer too – and since I’ve been carrying most the load it was time my sister stepped in.

And so they went along and got much of it sorted within an hour or so. I suppose it sounds a bit icky to be arranging your own funeral, but it has to be done – a fact of death I guess. Besides, who better? That’s how you get, a mix of uncertain grief and practicality. And one more thing ticked off.

Mum told me she’d picked out one of the cheapest coffins there. She’s getting cremated anyway, so there seems little point in spending big on something that’s soon to be firewood. And even if it wasn’t, what’s the value in spending many thousands of dollars on a beautifully appointed, lush coffin whose possessor won’t ever get to appreciate it? I don’t mean to sound flip, but I don’t understand. I know there are lots of families out there who are unstinting in providing for their dead loved ones, and some cultures where it is demanded. I don’t understand though. When I’m dead I leave behind a mortal body that has no further meaning or significance. Whoever I am has flown (I once thought it would be groovy to have a sky burial like they do in Tibet). That’s my opinion, and is not intended as being as spiritual as it sounds.  The point is that what happens to my body is immaterial – it has meaning only for those who are left behind. The rituals of death help people deal with loss and I understand the need for it. If it’s me though – and I’m curious to know what you think – if and when the time comes I don’t care if I’m in a coffin or covered in a shroud. Save you money, better to spend on the living than those who have no need of it anymore

If someday I die


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It is only at other people's funerals that I have ever really considered my own, and even then it has generally been about the music I would like to represent me at my death. I've never sat down and given it any serious consideration beyond that, if only because I couldn't believe I might die one day. Funerals are different though I guess, these thoughts come naturally to mind, if only as an idle fancy.

My mind was turned to this subject most recently at the funeral of my step-mother. I know it's customary and a perfectly natural thing to say, but I don't like funerals. It's hard to compare one from another, but on this occasion it seemed more difficult than previous times.

I sat on the polished wood of the chapel bench and listened as the celebrant intoned the words she had been given to comment on my step-mothers life. At some point the music played, which is often when people will get most emotional. Though I knew it was coming I felt surprise when Frank Sinatra started in on My Way. It's a great song, and apt in many ways for such an occasion, but I had heard to at the last funeral I had attended, and had often thought I would have it play at my own – but no more.

What would I play then?

Though it's never been formally set in stone I've always thought there should be a classical piece during the service, perhaps as background when people enter. St Matthew's Passion might be a bit over the top unless someone gives me a state funeral, and it's probably too spiritual for one such as me. I'm tempted to say Gould playing the Aria Da Cappo because I love it so much, but I suspect it might be lost in the moment. They're both Bach, and while there is a temptation to go for something brighter, happier, my ultimate choice must be Beethoven.

Of all the great composers it is  Beethoven whose music is most human. Bach is divine, Mozart is perfect, the Russians in general more romantic and vibrant, and so on, but Beethoven's music has blood and bone in it, it pulses with the life that fills us. It may be grand sometimes, and occasionally thunderous, but it contains the light and dark that every life has. A lot of composers have written funeral music, but Beethoven's Funeral March is both solemnly beautiful and real. So, that's it, in theory anyway.

The other piece of music is more difficult, so much so that I'm not even going to attempt a nomination. In any case it doesn't really matter. As I sat there during the funeral service for my step-mother I realised I wanted none of this. It was not for me.

Funerals today have been set in a kind of sentimental aspic. Solemn funeral directors glad hand the family and arrange everything. Music is played as the mourners file in, and again to celebrate the life of the departed. The mood is solemn, the atmosphere somewhat sterile in the pretty blonde wood chapel dedicated to death. The celebrant or minister or whoever it is conducting the service stands up front and solemnly recites the highlights and great qualities of the deceased, as told to them by family and friends. Often a slide-show of photo's from the life and times of the deceased will play in the background, bringing smiles and occasionally laughter to people as good times are recalled, and frequently tears as the realisation hits that those times are now gone forever. Afterwards teary eyed mourners will register their grief and good wishes with the family, occasionally recounting their own happy memory of the person just passed. Most often a few of the mourners will later adjourn back to someone's home for a coffee or a drink, sandwiches and party pies.

This is a ritual I guess, and probably a necessary one in the grieving process – yet it is a formula too, stale and cliched and somehow less for being so rote. I sat in the front row of my step-mothers funeral and dutifully listened to the service while my own memories went through my head. The mood was gloomy, sad, almost claustrophobic. It was a sad occasion, tragic in many ways, but the gloom was less a product of the occasion and more about the solemn surroundings and the weight of the ceremony. I felt it weigh upon me, and it didn't seem fitting. I thought then as I sat there that this is not what I want. This is not how it should be.

If I am to die some day then I want my life to be celebrated in ways fitting to how I lived. I've barely been in a church my whole life, and of course have only visited funeral chapels for the sole reason they exist. It is hypocrisy at least, and terribly boring on top of that, should my death be formalised in such a place.

I favour the Irish wake – perhaps it is the Irish in me. I don't know what's to happen between now and then, but thus far my life has been adventurous, enquiring and social. That's what should be remembered, that's how it should be celebrated. I understand an open casket might be a bit much for some people, and though I'd rather be there to enjoy it I understand if that's not the case. I will be in spirit.

I want lots of good food and fine wine, I want laughter and stories spontaneously told, remember when H did that, I remember one time we…and so on. I don't want any formal arrangement, any timetable or schedule. People come and go as they choose, they eat, they drink, they enjoy good memories and fellowship of friends. Like going to the pub on a Sunday afternoon. I want for it to be an occasion memorable for the fun of it, an occasion fitting for my end. 

Of course this is all predicated on the probability that I'm mortal. One thing for sure, that's something I'll be working on in the years to come. Short of peddling my soul to whoever wants it I'll be striving to become one of the immortals – so much to see, so much to do, death just gets in the way.

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