Laying to Rest – An Alternative Funeral

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 44, Easter 2008

On 25 January 2008, my eldest brother Michael died after a lengthy illness. He died as he had chosen at home surrounded by his family. In the months prior to his death, Michael had from time to time talked of some of the things he would prefer to see occur at his wake and funeral. He was not dogmatic about these – he simply put out options to be discussed by the wider family.

Michael was clear he wanted a simple alternative funeral to enable people to be more involved in the process and grieve more fully than was usual at a ‘professional’ funeral. He had previously been present at such alternative funerals himself. He knew they usually cost less than one third the price of a traditional funeral. He asked my brother Robert to be the ‘funeral director’ when the time came as he recognised the need to ultimately have someone ‘in charge’ to ensure things were done. From his own journey he knew that deep emotions would emerge around his death and strength and clarity would be required to keep the process moving forward.

When he died in his bed at 4.29 pm in the late afternoon, the family present decided that nothing needed to be done immediately. We sat quietly and wept for his life and death and his journey of suffering over the final months. We were relieved at one level his pain had ended, overwhelmed with gratitude for those who had supported us so well in the previous months, yet sad too that he had died at only 67. We rang his doctor to come and verify his death – and subsequently held him to an earlier promise that he would join us in toasting Mike’s entry into eternal life with a single malt whiskey, to which Michael was rather partial. So, an hour after Michael died and our initial grief had subsided, a bottle of Bush Mills single malt was opened for those who wanted to join in the toast to him. An appropriate speech was made followed by the singing of Galway Bay, The Fields of Athenry (our ancestors come from a village nearby in Co. Galway), Eternal Rest and the Irish Blessing. To conclude, we had a rendition of the final stages of the 1954 NZ Trotting Cup (to remind Michael of his roots in Addington.) What the doctor thought we’ll never know! Then the tears took over again.

With the crucial doctor’s certificate in hand, it was time for the work to begin. Julie, Michael’s wife, his three adult children and Robert met to look at the next stages. This was the first of what would be several meetings over the following few days. The strong belief and need was to involve the family as fully as possible in all aspects of Michael’s last journey. The decision was made to keep him at home for the first night. Contact was made with our friend Mike who had pre-built a simple casket. Then we organised a van from family friends to be ‘the hearse’ and were joined by another friend Colin, who helped collect the casket. Colin subsequently drove the van on each occasion. Finally, a first draft of the newspaper notice was completed.

The next morning the family took Michael to a funeral home to be embalmed, a task that took about four hours. Upon his return, we placed his casket beside his bed and lit a candle. People who visited over the following few days were invited to go and see him with most people doing so. Some spoke to him. Others told stories. Some prayed by his body. Some just stood and wept. All were offered a cup of tea and food as we know hospitality is a key element of a wake.

That day a death notice along with the death certificate (to clarify that this was no hoax) were faxed to the local morning newspaper with requests for publication in a couple of additional newspapers in other parts of the country. We posted off the official government information sheet and death certificate to the Registrar. Then followed a series of meetings with family members planning the vigil and the funeral service.

The vigil was a bit unusual even for a ‘roll-your-own’ funeral. After a welcome, some prayer, a decade of the Rosary and a reading, we handed Michael over to ‘his people’, the nurses and therapists he had trained over the years. As his friend Kathryn facilitated, many from the 250 present rose to share stories of his life. A few of these stories were then enacted for us by play-back theatre friends. Afterwards, supper was served while people mingled, catching up with one another and with family and friends who had travelled to join us. Thus did the three-hour vigil pass – lots of stories, laughter, meeting and tears.

The funeral service the following day followed a more traditional format. Our friend Anne, who had been invited by the family to be the celebrant, welcomed us and then followed readings, prayers, some poetry (Michael was a good poet), singing, the main eulogy from his eldest son Nathan and eulogies from Julie, Anna and Seth, who read one of Michael’s poems. We concluded by inviting all 500 present to come forward and lay a flower on his body in the open casket, an action that was very moving and much appreciated.

Later, after afternoon tea, the immediate family accompanied Michael on his last journey to the crematorium where there were prayers and final commendation. Mike’s journey was completed. Rest in peace, my brother.

For further alternative funeral information, check our website – www.catholicworker.org.nz/funeralchoice

—Jim Consedine

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