What waits for us?

I attended a funeral yesterday. It wasn’t sad, depressing, weepy or filled with the dread of mortality. It was lively, good-natured, friendly and congenial. Of course, the loss of the person concerned was sorely felt, but even her own children will attest to the fact that hers was a life worth celebrating and not worth being moribund about. I hope people smile and laugh a bit when I’m gone, even if they’re just relieved they outlived me.

I am not religious, not even really spiritual. I know a lot of people like that, but everyone deals with death in a different way – and some are better at coping than others. The funeral I’m talking about was a Jewish funeral and I know it sounds bizarre, but those are the best. It’s very matter-of-fact, it gets done the day after someone dies and it’s over very quickly. I’m sure there’s a psychologist who can explain why it feels better to do it that way than to drag things out over many weeks, like the Catholics seem to do. All that mourning, all the black clothes, all the false modesty and reverence and wailing. It might be best to just get very drunk.

I often wonder what an alien race might think of our elaborate death-rituals. Do you think they’d be solemn and respectful, or confused? Since we still can’t answer basic questions about cellular death, the final flickers of energy in the brain, or the flatlining of an organ, we don’t even know exactly how it all stops, or where. For all we know we cannot prove or disprove the existence of the soul, the relevance of the physical body to identity and the nature of the timespan we refer to as life. We make a huge fuss of things at the birth of a new human; and we make an even bigger deal of the termination of one, but in-between we’re completely inconsistent. I’m getting a bit philosophical here, but I’m sure you’ve thought about these things too.

The conversations people have at these life-changing, milestone events is also quite telling. Inevitably you talk about the person who is gone, and share stories and memories. It’s sad that the subject can’t be there to hear these stories, because I think they might really appreciate them. Maybe some are lucky enough to hear them before they’re gone – from honest and thoughtful friends, but most don’t. If some of these now dearly departed people had heard some of the things people thought about them before they died, they might have been nicer while they were still alive. Appropriate humour is a very necessary ingredient at funerals too, don’t you think? We all know, deep down inside, that we’re going to go the same way one day, and we deal with that by giggling and laughing just a little bit, even if only to chase away the inevitable emptiness. It’s the sort of nervous chattering you hear when someone is about to embark on some dangerous adventure, and dark humour is a better reflexive style than the alternative of taking things too seriously.

Walking past all the old tombstones and graves I couldn’t help thinking of a statistic someone read out to me about how a grave will be visited, on average, by only about two generations before being abandoned to neglect and the elements forever. The inconsolable loneliness of that eventuality seems to shed a blinding light on the context of our ridiculous daily obsessions and concerns. It gives you perspective…

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