By Brent Woodard
Anglican/ United Church
When I first started in ministry in 1983, in a small prairie town, there was an end-of-life culture. Most everyone had a funeral service, in a church or the funeral chapel, led by a religious leader, whether the people were religious or not. The minister was the only person who spoke, including giving the eulogy. We sang the same somber funeral hymns at every service because that’s what people knew.
Gradually, this end-of-life culture changed. We moved from mostly full-casket funerals to mostly cremation/memorial services. Increasingly, more people participated. Family and friends gave eulogies. PowerPoint presentations were added. There was an open time for people to share a story or memory. Grandchildren or friends read scripture. Music, both sacred and secular, was uplifting and meaningful. The service felt more spiritual and less religious.
Forty years ago, there weren’t many options for how people could honour a loved one after they passed. Today, there are options. For example, when my father passed away, we invited friends to a restaurant and, after the meal, people shared a memory, and then we had a toast to him. It felt honouring and fitting.
I know some people ask that there is no service, no gathering, no “celebration of life” for them after they die. I wonder if they don’t know of the options that are possible these days. I wonder if they think end-of-life celebrations have to be religious. I wonder if they think end-of-life gatherings need to be sad and they don’t want their loved ones to be sad. I wonder if they are being humble and modest and don’t want people to make a fuss because of them. (Maybe they’re afraid of what people will say about them.)
In life’s journey we celebrate people when there is a birthday, graduation, wedding, retirement and at Christmas. It’s a way of saying “I’m glad you are you, that you are in this world and that you are in my/our life.” That’s a nice message to give and to receive.
I know there are other important aspects to an end-of-life commemoration – acknowledgment and sharing of the loss, change and grief; showing support and care; recognizing that death often invites deeper reflection on what life is about. It is thoughtfully said that a commemoration is not for the one who died, but for the ones left behind. A good question to ask then is “what do I/they need to say goodbye, to say thank you, to have pain acknowledged, to heal, to carry on?”
I invite us to have conversations with loved ones about what might be helpful, fitting and meaningful for us, for them, at this time of our journey.