Funerals are for the living

I hope this doesn’t come across as macabre. It’s certainly not intended that way.

Last Friday I went to Melbourne to attend the funeral of a true gentleman named Alex Whamond. Alex met my mother in 1987, two years after the death of my father. They’ve been close companions ever since, not married or living together, but definitely …….. together.

I was 17 years old when they met and like most 17 year old fatherless boys, I had chosen my own father figures and was reluctant to let Alex into my personal life in any meaningful way. He was muscling in on my Mum, after all, and my Dad’s memory was very fresh in my mind. It wasn’t meant to be personal, but I guess it was.

That attitude remained mostly in place for all of the last 25 years. In my defence, I’ve lived in a separate state for 17 of those years, so I haven’t seen the family anywhere near as much as I’d liked to have seen them since 1995. I certainly grew to like Alex, however, and I’m sorry that I might have been an occasional bastard and a difficult nut to crack.

I’m thankful for the companionship and loyalty he shared with my Mum over that time. Alex came to all our family events over the years, saw kids get married and have children of their own, and witnessed the growth of a generation of Wades and Johnsons.

Last Friday, the chapel was a standing-room-only affair and it was a wonderful service in remembrance and celebration of Alex’s life. He was eulogised by people from various corners of his life and I was honoured to be asked to read some verse as part of the service.

It shames me a little to say it, but last Friday was the first time I’d met either of Alex’s two children, their partners and his grandchildren. Alex had always come to our family events, but we never had any combined family events (to my knowledge) and his children and their families are all wonderful people. There were many wonderful words spoken and many memories shared.

I don’t want to sound too callous here because it’s all quite recent, it really was a wonderful service and I’m very pleased that I was there for it – but none of what happened last Friday was of any benefit to Alex.

Funerals are for the living.

We have an innate need to send off our loved ones with an event that we deem fitting for them. In the course of a funeral ceremony, we gather together, facilitate the emotional release with flowers (usually bought from a partner born), share our grief, and maybe share some stories about the recently deceased.

The living even make preparations for death. They pick out a spot for their graves, choose the coffin they want to be buried in, and pick an ornate headstone. It is considered somewhat meaningful, to give the living a sense of rest and peace. We arrange events and consider financial burdens such as how much is a headstone and the cost of a coffin and other funeral arrangements. What I hope, however, is that Alex got to feel some of the love that was in the room on Friday during the last months/weeks/days of his life.

I don’t know what can be done about this because there’s no way to tell when the loved ones are about to shuffle off that mortal coil. No way to tell what they’ve meant to you without feeling like you’re removing their hope or condemning them to a shorter future than what they might have envisioned. People are just left with their memories and a few of them often see these deceased people in their dreams talking to them. In such cases, they often search for the meaning of seeing a dead person in their dreams. Getting closure through the meanings might lift their spirits and ease the mourning journey for them.

I’ve known a few wonderful men who have passed away in the last few years – Bob Sinclair and Curvin O’Rielly – both fighting their disease until the last. I didn’t get to express my appreciation to them before they went and am now left slightly incomplete and disappointed knowing that there was more that we might have shared. I met them late in their lives and live on a different continent, but still…..

The slightly Pythonesque solution would be to get the not-yet-deceased to agree to a funeral, say, a week before they felt like they were actually going to go. Telling those gathered the truth about the event would be optional, but the IV drip next to the casket might be a giveaway.

The mourners would get to share their feelings, thoughts, and stories, and the subject of the occasion would actually get a greater appreciation of their impact on the lives around them. I have a feeling Alex had a much greater impact on the people around him than he ever knew.

Of course, the much more serious suggestion is to make sure that the people around you know how much you care about them on a regular basis. I’m not suggesting you should turn up at their door reciting a tender piece of poetry once a month, but perhaps some genuine random acts of kindness amongst your friends, some more catch-up time, a few more dinners and genuine conversations might just let the people around you know how important they are to you on a day-to-day basis.

I’m speaking more to myself than to anyone else here. Most people are good at all that stuff. I’m a terrible friend, slightly socially awkward, a narrow conversationalist and completely devoid of a memory for important occasions and anniversaries. I have a small circle of true two-way friends and some of them are scattered in (what are, to me) far flung places around the world.

It’s not always easy to be an open book, or to feel free enough to read The Book opened by others. But I humbly hope that we can all do what we can to let those close to us know that we care for them and appreciate them – even if just in some small way, everyday, without leaving it all to a rush at the finish.


I sincerely hope that no family members reading this take offence at me making some lighthearted remarks in the wake of Alex’s passing. I think that in better times, he would have had a laugh at the Pythonesque suggestion. The sense of humour that old friends spoke of so freely last week would suggest so, too.

It’s just a somewhat meagre attempt to lighten a serious subject at a serious time. And the ultimate conclusion is as sincere as is possible – SW

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  1. Not that this will help you, but your so-well-stated feelings resonate so strongly with me that I feel like they are my own. I’ve reached an age where many of what I felt were good friends have passed on. Some wrote in my high school yearbook that I was a good friend, but I never had a chance to tell them how much they meant to me and what good friends they were, but now I’ll never have the chance and I regret that very much.though.
    By the way, although I’ve never met you, I consider you a good friend. I suspect many more share that sentiment. Don’t ever change.

  2. Sometimes with some folks “a few more dinners” is all you can do. I am thinking specifically of a few family members, now departed, who were uncomfortable at having the atmosphere any more serious than that. They’d certainly laughed me out of the house for “reciting a tender piece of poetry”.

    Sorry for your loss. Thank you for the introspective piece.

  3. Steven,

    My mother was in the cemetery business for 40 years. She started as secretary to the president and worked all the way up to VP & general manager of her own cemetery/funeral home. Let me assure you that your comments are spot on. When her own mother passed away I was in the middle of exams at university. Needless to say, I was torn between family obligations and finishing my studies. I was also concerned about what the rest of the family would think about me if I didn’t come to the funeral. I asked my mother for her advice and her exact words were, “Funerals are for the living, not the dead. Stay at school and finish your exams. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks about it. I’ll deal with them if necessary”.

  4. Good word there Steven.

    I’m a complete mess regarding old friends, family gatherings and birthdays and so on.

    So I guess I’m not alone. Sorry for the loss. The well written words, I think, no one could find them in appropriet.

    Best wishes

  5. I agree. I had the same reminiscing experience with an aunt’s passing. We were not terribly close to her and her brood, mostly because of the lack of closeness between her and my father. She was a full ten years older than my father, and certainly cut from very different cloth. They lived two hours away from us, and, even more importantly, two hours in the wrong direction. That is, their place wasn’t on the path ‘to’ anywhere we would typically travel. Thus, we saw little of her and her children.

    At her recent funeral, I wished that had been different. It’s a shame, really. To your point, funerals are for us to put closure on grief and decide how we collectively will live without that person.

  6. Thanks for sharing this with us. Susan and I both felt your reflections resonated strongly with our beliefs, and helped to remind us of what is really important.

  7. My condolences go to you and your family, Steve, upon the passing of Alex. My attitude about funerals is that they are mostly in the spiritual realm. The nature of the spiritual realm is unknown to us, but God has let us know the important aspects of it in His Word. When you have taken the steps for the Holy Spirit to be indwelling, then you can be in direct contact with God mostly through prayer. Much of a funeral is spiritual, which is why I wanted to emphasize this. I also think of the respect and honor one wants to pay to the person departed, as in going to pay your respects. We don’t exactly know where the departed person’s soul is at the moment in the ever after. I have the feeling that they know of your respect and best wishes. God bless, Steve.

  8. Thanks all for your thoughts and reflections.

    We don’t always get introspective here, but when we do, Swadeology runs deep. Well, deeper than most Chevys, at least.