When I was growing up, a funeral was considered a somber event, one too gruesome to allow children to attend. As a result, I wasn’t allowed to attend the funerals of my grandparents or my great-aunts and great-uncles. Maybe that was a good thing, I don’t know, but I do know that for the past several years, I’ve attended the most wonderful, entertaining, and heartwarming memorial services I ever could imagine.
One old auctioneer who lived in these parts threw two “funerals” for himself before he passed on. He didn’t want to miss the party, he said. He also prepared for the event by painting his town’s church (white), so that everything would look good for that inevitable event. I missed his service, but I bet it was a good one. A service I attended on a bleak day in February last year took place in a bar because the dearly departed had spent most of his time there. There was guitar music, jollity, and plenty to drink, as hoped. But most of these events take place in churches, which have blessedly lifted the ban on fun in the sanctuary. Most still include readings from the Bible, a few hymns, and soothing words from the minister, but there’s a lot more that goes on now.
A few years ago, to celebrate the life of one Floppy (née Florence) Tolman, who lived past 100 (some say she was 104, but no one seems to agree–one of the risks of not being honest about your age), the town band oompahed and thumped from the balcony of the church, as everyone knew how much she’d loved hearing that band. At another service, also in February, we celebrated the life of a quirky lady who’d made her living in the world of fashion. In cleaning out her house, her heirs had discovered a vast trove of expensive perfumes. In a generous gesture that had more than one purpose, they devoted an entire table to these fragrances, new and old, so that the mourners could help themselves, which we all did, lingering over our choices. Again, a recent celebration of a dear friend who loved contra dancing included a performance by one of the great contra-dance callers (himself no spring chicken). Carrying his accordion, he walked to the front of the church, alongside a fiddler. Together they took seats in the choir pews and began to play a reel, calling it as if the dance were taking place right then and there. Packed into the pews like sardines, we could only clap and stomp our feet to the beat. The dance, we all knew, wasn’t for us but for our friend in heaven.
What comes in between all these blessedly inspired elements are the stories. Everyone has stories to tell, and we laugh and cry and learn a lot more about this person than we thought we ever knew. Recently, the lives of a couple who were devoted to each other throughout their time together came to an end. After an uplifting service that included a jazz band and lots of stories, their ashes were packed into a small cannon, usually reserved for celebrating the Fourth of July, and shot in a fiery blast toward their beloved Tolman Pond. We all screamed and laughed and blew kisses to them in departure. This was a lot closer to what the Irish would call a “wake,” which I believe is meant to wake the dead, in case they were only sleeping. I wondered what my grandparents would have thought.