The Mixed Pleasures Of Attending Our Own Memorial Service

Wanting to attend our own funerals, our own memorial services, is a fantasy with a long and distinguished pedigree. (As is the associated fantasy of wanting to read our own obituaries.) With good reason. If things have worked out well, many of our friends and family members will be there, hopefully all well-dressed. Importantly, we will be the focus of attention, the center-show, at most times. Some folks will occasionally deign to speak to each other on topics that do not directly pertain to us, but we will at least feature front and center in any formal addresses delivered from the podium of choice. Perhaps there will be photographs of us, all showcasing our ‘best sides’ and our best memories; an artful act of editing that will show our lives in the best possible way, constructing a narrative that will suggest all went well, we only made friends, we always looked happy, we went to wonderful places, we ate great food, we did great work–you get the picture (literally.)

And then there is the matter of the eulogies. Ah, what sweet joy. To hear our friends speak glowingly and tearfully about us, to hear them recount tales and anecdotes in which we come off so well, in which even our faults are beautifully incorporated into a larger picture of goodness–who would want to forego such an opportunity? Some of our creative friends might even have produced several drafts of the eulogies they deliver, thus ensuring a carefully crafted final product that will do the most justice to a description of our lives and our virtues. If the logistical details have been sorted out, there will be good food and drink, and once the effects of those kick in, and some of the tears have been wiped away, there will be, among your friends, much merriment and conviviality. We might even hear more stories about ourselves; more clever punch lines that we delivered on many a memorable occasion in the past. It will be the kind of party we often wanted to throw, but were never quite able to pull off; it was too hard to get everyone together in one place. Now, we don’t even have to clean up.

But we should be careful to not tarry too long and we should slip away as the service and the after-party winds down. For we might notice, much as we did as the attendees gathered and talked among themselves as the services kicked off, that our friends and families have lives that will persist and continue even after our deaths; once the service is over, and as dispersals take place in the parking lot and lobby, we will begin to fade ever so imperceptibly from view. The world awaits; we had our turn on the stage, exit left directions have been issued, and now we must depart. To delay our departure will only be to receive further evidence of what we fear most of all: our erasure from this world. Other forms of existence await us hopefully: perhaps as memories and continuing influences in the lives of those we loved. Those will have to do for now. (And ever?)

Lessons From A Vision Of A Funeral Pyre

My grandfather’s funeral was the first I attended of a significant family member. It was also the first time I witnessed a cremation, that fiery return to the ashes–and possibly eternal cycles of becoming and passing away–which signals the end of a Hindu’s life. As we prepared for it, I was aware, even through the haze of my grieving for a man who had assumed such a vivid and dominant presence in my life, that I was about to undergo a transformative experience of one kind or the other.

It was not long in forthcoming. After the preliminary prayers had been chanted, and my grandfather’s body wrapped in a white shroud and placed on top of the pyre, my uncle–my grandfather’s eldest surviving son–stepped up and brought a burning taper to it. The wooden logs caught fire quickly and long tongues of flame moved up and through their thickets, rapidly turning into a fierce blaze. I stood on the other side of the pyre; I could see my grandfather’s feet pointing toward me, suddenly exposed, sticking out from the under the sheet that covered the rest of his body.

As the flames grew, so did the radiant heat, and I took a step backward. As I did so, I noticed that my grandfather’s feet had blackened, charred by the fire that turned skin into soot. And then, abruptly, without notice, the blackened skin peeled, exposing an ivory-white flesh below, which began to melt and drip off the the now exposed bones; a bony, skeletal foot began to emerge. I instinctively winced, and started forward; I wanted to protect my grandfather from this horrible, agonizing, consignment to the flames. He was trapped and helpless; pinned under by the weight of the logs.

I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to protect. My grandfather was gone; he was beyond pain and sensation and feeling and suffering. I was staring at the remnants of his body, now lacking the appropriate relationship to the totality I had called my ‘grandfather.’ It could feel nothing, sense nothing. Old instincts died hard; standing there, in that April heat, as the Central Indian sun beat down on me, I could scarcely believe this all too evident fact.

The pyre continued to blaze; the bones in my grandfather’s feet had now started to crack and crumble under the still raging flames. All around me, a sombre group of family and friends gazed on. I had received news of my grandfather’s worsening health a mere twenty-four hours before; we had dashed to his home by overnight train in an effort to meet him, and on arriving, had learned he had passed away the previous night itself. I had spent the morning in a daze, scarcely believing this larger than life figure was gone, never to return.

But now there was no doubt about it; I had received confirmation that the time had come for my grandfather to ‘return’; this cremation had quickly and efficiently prepared his physical remains for the next stage of their transformation and further utilization in this world’s ongoing becoming.