I think I am well placed to become a funeral planner. Not that I want to plan any more funerals in the near future, but having been to a few (too many) funerals of people who died of AIDS in the early 1990s, I had fair bit of experience to draw upon when it came to planning funerals for members of my own family.
It was from those funerals that I learned that funerals don’t have to be about religious ritual – in fact you have enormous flexibility in how you organise them. The pattern they follow is really just about leading people through the farewell process, from grief to hope.
Funerals are for the living. They are a shared celebration of the life of someone loved and missed by those present, who have a lot of needs to be satisfied – the need for ‘closure’, the need to laugh and cry, the need to be reminded of the value of the person’s life, to name just a few.
At my brother Mark’s funeral in late 2010, there was also a need to honour all the different parts of his life and the diverse array of people who were important to him. So just as people have bicultural weddings and bicultural baby-namings, we had a bicultural funeral.
So what was bicultural about it?
Native Australian flowers and African proteas on top of the coffin, which was draped with a piece of Kente cloth that I bought for my brother on my first visit to Ghana in 1993. The pattern – Abusua Ye Dom – is about the connectedness, power and unity of the family, according to DadaK, which seemed very appropriate. I asked DadaK’s advice on whether it was appropriate to use it of course. The cloth has also been used in happier occasions – I’d borrowed it from Mark 15 years before, to wrap AM at his naming celebration.
Inviting a Ghanaian church elder to say a prayer, and acknowledging that even though Mark was an atheist, he appreciated the prayers that he knew the Ghanaians had been making for him during his illness. This was also important for members of my non-African family and for other friends.
Having a ‘Viewing’. This is not something anglo-Aussies like to do, in my experience, but as I’ve pointed out in a previous post, for Ghanaians it’s very important. It was a very special time. We opened the chapel half an hour before the service so the Ghanaians could come and see him. He was wearing a shirt he’d had made in Ghana when he travelled there with me in 1998. (He was treated like royalty, but more on that another time). I put a photo of AM in his pocket, that I’d found in his wallet.
AM’s younger siblings amazed me. They had no fear, just sadness – and curiosity. G Ketewa, who was 7, even dragged my oldest brother into the viewing. Having been to Ghanaian funerals before, he had no idea that my non-African family were actually trying to avoid being in the same room as the open coffin. He just grabbed my brother’s hand and pulled him into the chapel.
Abrantie (who was 10) took photos of Mark’s face. I lifted G Ketewa up so he could see properly.We talked about how he looked, they touched his face and remarked how cold it was. They worried about whether his nose was sticking up too high and might get squashed by the lid. (It wasn’t). It felt so natural, so normal, to share this with them.
I’ve written elsewhere about my choice of music – African and African-American blues that Mark loved, just as he loved and welcomed my African family and friends into his life after I met DadaK.
Time for people to share their memories This is one of the ideas I picked up at those funerals of friends who died of AIDS – inviting people who weren’t already on the program to come up and speak. Two guys did – one we had shared a house with about 30 years ago, and one of Mark’s drinking mates. They spoke from the heart, as the saying goes, and their stories were funny and sad. But it wasn’t until afterwards that the drinking mates commented that no-one in the whole service had commented on Mark’s love of sport (from the armchair perspective). Oops. Well, nothing’s perfect.
The formal program had eulogies from our oldest brother, from me, some words in absentia from our niece in the US, from Abrantie on behalf of his siblings (that got everyone crying!), and from the President of Sutherland Spinners and Weavers, where for a long time Mark was the only male member. One of my sisters-in-law, niece and nephew set up Mark’s wheel and a display of his yarns and woven scarves beside the coffin.
Making sure there was hot food afterwards at the wake. You may laugh, but I’ve yet to meet a Ghanaian who is satisfied with a meal of sandwiches & cake. In a strangely serendipitous moment, I discovered after we got there that the venue I’d chosen for the wake was also the new venue for the Senegalese Drumming and Dance classes I’d been going to a year or so earlier. I think the drumming probably started about the time we left. It was a local bowling club: quiet, a bit down-at-heel, just the sort of place Mark would have been comfortable having a drink (with a big hall downstairs for the dancing).
The funeral parlour where we had the service was also somewhere he would have been comfortable – no pretences, a warm and down-to-earth manager and staff, no ‘Loved One’ weirdness and – lots of brown.
I’ve organised a lot of events, and in the past 2 years have – with the help of my family – added 3 funerals to the list. Marks, Dad’s, Mum’s. I’m not in a hurry to organise any more, but I think I do it well.
So, funerals are for the living. I wanted Mark’s funeral to bring him into people’s minds – his generosity, his quirks, his creativity and awesome intelligence, his love. I think it did that. I think he would have been pleased with it.
Funerals are for the living; and that includes me. I was the closest to him because for most of our lives we lived in the same city, shared the same interests, and he was the world’s best uncle to my son and his brothers and sister. I cared for him during his last months battling cancer and organising his funeral was just an extension of that care. I had to do it, because I loved him so much and wanted the best for him, and I had to do it in a way that honoured him. I reckon I did, so I’m happy with that.