The way we mourn

Obit notices are epic and funeral services overblown, but Death itself is nowhere to be found

JOHN FRASER September 3 2007

The way we mourn

Obit notices are epic and funeral services overblown, but Death itself is nowhere to be found

JOHN FRASER September 3 2007

The way we mourn


Obit notices are epic and funeral services overblown, but Death itself is nowhere to be found


“DEATH BE NOT PROUD, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful,” wrote John Donne, the 17th-century Anglican divine who was also one of the great metaphysical poets of his day. “Thy mouth was open,” added Donne’s colleague George Herbert in another direct address to Death, “but thou coulds’t not sing...”

Ha! Old Death is standing tall these days, belting out new songs like a torch singer and generally thinking pretty big things, at least if Canadian funerals and the attendant folderol that afflicts the recently departed is anything to go by. The “Simple Alternative” may be there for the discerning few who want to avoid all the extremities of expenses death can bring upon a grieving family, but the business of death continues to expand, although today there is a new twist to the end of life—it doesn’t have to happen.

Or so it seems sometimes. First of all, the word itself—Death—is a major no-no. It’s a downer and suggests earthly finality—or finality, period. As the Age of Faith makes its final, fitful departure and disappears beneath the Western Sea, and along with it the confidence in an afterlife, the reality of death has been increasingly and perversely obscured. Death goes against the spirit of the age. It’s not on the agenda. It is almost politically incorrect.

Conveniently, you don’t actually have to die anymore, at least not linguistically. Just read the funeral announcements in any newspaper on any given day. At the most, people simply disappear “suddenly” or “peacefully” or “courageously” or “quietly” or “unexpectedly.” Of the 24 departed ones who “slipped” or “passed” away on a recent Tuesday in July in the columns of the Globe and Mail, apparently only four actually “died.” All the rest entered a euphemistic Valhalla encumbered only by a genial shroud of feel-good adjectives.

And that’s just the beginning of the subterfuge, the big denial. It’s not entirely clear how it all got started, but some time during the past decade many North American news-

paper ad managers discovered that the lineage for death announcements could be dramatically increased if the bereaved survivors were encouraged, by hook or by crook, to fatten up the tales of the departed ones. If the famous could always get their life stories, gilded and buffed to a high polish, splashed across a newspaper page in 12-point type with accompanying pictures, the hoi polloi were suddenly offered the same transformative experience for their loved ones in egalitarian agate 8-point type at incrementally increased costs by the line. The pictures obviously were an add-on and cost extra. What was once a terse gazetteer announcement to neighbours and interested associates has now turned into an epic saga for the benefit of... well, it’s not entirely clear: perhaps the egos of the surviving family members.

Here is a recent example, with names and certain details changed in order not to inadvertently hurt the feelings of a well-intentioned family which has nevertheless trod upon territory the English satirist Evelyn Waugh, author of The Loved One, would have relished:

ANGLETON, Amy Bessborough (née Pentworth)—Suddenly but peacefully, without a word of complaint, on Friday May 8th. After a rich and vibrant life, Amy leaves indelible memories to her beloved sort John and her daughters Ruth Kelso and Kristy Ann, as well as her seven wonderful grandchildren. We will celebrate Amy’s beautiful life at a special service of thanksgiving on Wednesday, May 13th at the Banks of Jordan Funeral Home. Amy came to Montreal in 1927 with her parents after an early childhood in Chatham, Ont. In Montreal, she attended Miss Fairbank’s Academy and won medals in everything she tried out for, although she was best remembered for starting the first bridge club at the school (the Amy Pentworth Cup is still competed for). A strikingly pretty woman, Amy reached full maturity set against all the drama of World War II, where she played her part in the war effort as a nurse’s aide. It was during these years, so fondly recalled ever afterwards, that Amy met the father of her children and although the marriage was tragically cut short by the heartbreak of a cruel mental disease, Amy’s indomitable spirit reigned supreme. In particular, her son John remembers her courage during this period when she was beset by both financial worries and the “challenge” of exuberant teenagers. Bridge sustained her spirits throughout these and later years and her special friends Ruth Danton and Ethel Jackson will be missing her greatly. Sadly, her final days were afflicted with Alzheimer’s, although she always retained her great dignity of bearing. In lieu of flowers, Amy’s family would be grateful if donations could be sent to the Fairbank’s Academy in Montreal or the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.

And this actually is a quite gentle announcement, somewhat restrained, and half the length of some of the sagas that now appear daily in newspapers at considerable cost to the bereaved. Anybody who follows the death announcements (and that means most people over a certain age) can cite examples of announcements so far over the top they almost reach Pluto.

One particularly memorable instance was of a society lady in Western Canada who shot her husband in his legs after she caught him philandering, went on to be arrested, tried and imprisoned, and then emerged back into her somewhat more restrained but affluent social life of volunteer service, bridge nights and birthday parties with the grandchildren. At the time of the shooting, it was a big national news story, but her survivors, in the subsequent death announcement a few years later, merely alluded to “mom’s unfortunate difficulties”—three little

A funeral is a 'celebration’ now. Nothing is less welcome at one than The Corpse.

words in an essay of Horatian dimensions reciting all of mom’s achievements.

Another syndrome that has infected the business of death is the self-important, selfserving eulogy. Some people just cannot pay tribute to a dead person without overlaying everything with their own story. The greatness of the departed one is weighed mostly in the balance of the larger greatness of the eulogist. Usually this is simply pompous; sometimes, though, it can be quite comical. When the late and great journalist and social activist June Callwood died earlier this year, there was understandably an outpouring from fellow scribes. The most cringe-making, though, came from the Globe and Mail’s television critic, John Doyle, the whole point of which was to quote a letter Callwood had once sent him congratulating him on a particular piece and for improving “the craft” of writing.

You could see the same syndrome at work after the death of Richard Bradshaw, the brilliant opera magician who built Canada’s first opera house and made the Canadian Opera Company a world leader. Here’s the distinguished German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade writing of his terrible grief in the Globe and Mail’s letter page. I’ll just quote the first paragraph to give you the gist. Note the nine times “I” and “me” are used versus the five times for “he” and “him”:

“As I am sitting here at the Salzburg Festi-

val for the 14th consecutive summer, I am remembering Richard Bradshaw and raising a glass in his honour. I wouldn’t be here without him—his faith in me as a young singer and his encouragement gave me the confidence to pursue this wonderful, crazy life. When Richard cast me as Oedipus Rex, I don’t think either of us expected how key a role this would play in our lives. For Richard, it confirmed the adventurous path he had chosen for the Canadian Opera Company; for me, it was a personal triumph and a great leap forward in my career.” Although death is almost always infinitely sad for those immediately affected, these often twittering announcements and self-serving eulogies are merely emblematic decoration to a much deeper cover-up that has emerged over the past few years, in funerals themselves. It is rare now for a dead body to be served up at a “funeral.” Most commemorations are bodiless and rendered in the bleak pseudo-ecclesiastical meeting rooms of funeral parlours. If a service is held at a church, it is almost invariably a “service of thanksgiving,” or “a celebration.” Even here, the presence of the recently departed is an increasingly rare event. Nothing, it seems, is more unwelcome at a funeral these days than The Corpse.

If a traditional funeral is held, it is often disconcerting or considered eccentric, even anti-social. This week in Toronto, for example, Richard Bradshaw was buried with astringent solemnities at Toronto’s St. James’ Cathedral that left many people shaking their heads at its harrowing simplicity. Not only were there no operatic histrionics, there was no parade of favourite memories, no touchy-feely hymns and poems, no fond and amusing anecdotes to give us some comic relief from the tragedy of a life cut short from further promise.

It was reminiscent of the much smaller funeral, in May 2005, for the Canadian author and journalist Christina McCall. Her family walked her body down the aisle and their grief was palpable. Unlike Richard Bradshaw, Ms. McCall had been ill for some time, but in both cases these were clearly incredibly difficult and sad departures. The

centuries-old Book of Common Prayer service, which focuses on the hope of redemption, salvation and resurrection, was directed in both cases at everyone at the funeral. While this obviously included Bradshaw and McCall (God is reminded, among other things, that each of these two—like everyone else present—was “a sinner of your own making”), the traditional obsequies and observances for the dead in the long Judeo-Christian tradition manifestly focus on the living and the ordeals still to be borne before our own deaths and hopes of salvation.

What was curious about the McCall and Bradshaw services was how they divided those who attended. In McCall’s case, for example, no eulogies from family members or friends and associates were made and, as a priest explained before the service, only the church’s traditional reminders that we sprang from dust and end up as dust would accompany Christina McCall’s passage from this world to the next. The attendant solemn liturgy was exclusively designed not to individually immortalize someone who was already immortalized, but to remind those of us “left behind” that our own lives were as transient as the one whose death we were grieving. “Brief life is here our portion,” the hymn goes, “brief sorrow, short-lived care.”

For many, it was a moving, solemn and beautifully spiritual farewell, imbued with tragedy, acceptance and the remission of earthly grief in anticipation of another life totally beyond mortal knowledge and assurance. This evidently resonated for Christina McCall, because it was the service she asked for, and also for her immediate family. But the verdict was not unanimous.

Reading a column by McCall’s former associate, Allan Fotheringham, or her former husband, Peter C. Newman, a few days later, you would have thought a major act of sacrilege had been committed. Both men wanted to hear all about the achievements of her life trotted out for one last airing before internment, as if anyone who was at the funeral didn’t know what he or she was doing there. Fotheringham even saw in the spare and elegiac service all the proof needed to understand why mainstream churches are in decline. The service had made no concessions to the mood of the times, and the mood of the times demands that the dead be celebrated, not mourned; made present instead of departed; reborn in verbiage rather than buried in a shroud.

This syndrome, I feel, can be laid at the feet of two famous ladies, one “departed” but far from gone, and the other very much still with us: Diana and Oprah. When the masses

applauded the appalling eulogy Princess Diana’s lounge lizard of a brother, Earl Spencer, made in Westminster Abbey, you knew, you just knew, something major had changed in group sensitivities. And if you didn’t know it from that fateful day, you can tune in daily to Oprah to understand that everyone now, in theory, has the right to splatter their lives over the public airwaves, regardless of how banal, sentimental, embarrassing or irrel-

There were no histrionics at Bradshaw’s austere funeral, no parade of favourite memories

evant it may be to the larger world. If you have not yet had your Warholian 15 minutes of fame, let not your spirit be troubled: your family and executors will make sure it comes at the end.

What’s wrong with a stylized funeral that serves the emotional needs of the immediate families and friends? Nothing I suppose, except the loss of a certain decent reticence and restraint in the face of this awe-ful reality. Reticence and restraint are not part of the age, certainly. But there’s something else lost, too, which is more difficult to explain and that is that Death itself is largely diminished in all the hoopla. Our grandparents understood death so much better than we do. They understood its arbitrariness through disease, poverty and war. They understood the particular tragedy of the young dying, from any cause; they also understood the beauty of death coming after a long life well lived.

The traditional liturgy of all denominations and all religions underscores the transient nature of life, the gratitude for the privilege of having been able to spend time on earth, and, for those with curiosity about the spiritual dimension of life, the hope of an existence beyond the earthly grave. At the root of traditional liturgy is the fear of God,

which is to say an acceptance that there is something so much larger than anything we can actually imagine at work in the universe. In this sense, even though death is a big event for the immediately bereaved, it is a tiny blip in the history of the cosmos and to imagine it as something bigger is an act of ego.

This is the opposite of the “celebration of life” syndrome of most funerals these days, the kind the disappointed mourners at McCall’s funeral wanted, the kind that start to sound like an Oprah symposium of being positive about bad news events. The fact that so many eulogists end up talking about themselves rather than the Departed One is actually part of the package: personal fulfillment being a key component in the obsequies of our times.

When the novelist Robertson Davies died in 1995, he had left word that he wanted an ordinary service from the Book of Common Prayer in a college chapelno homily—and with the chaplain of the day presiding. A few days later, because he was a considerable public figure, over 1,000 people turned up at the University of Toronto’s huge Convocation Hall to hear a whole slew of wonderful accounts of his life. In his case it was appropriate. In the case of the less famous, the traditional wake or reception following a funeral service was a good time for a few well-chosen words from close friends and associates. But this tradition, too, is dying because people seem to want starring roles. I have attended “celebrations” in which the eulogists, like Michael Schade and John Doyle, simply forgot whom they were celebrating as they recited their own interesting journeys through life. It is a vulgarization of death as well as an often unwitting denial of the power of death in our lives.

“No man is an island,” John Donne also wrote. “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am a part of the whole. Therefore ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Yes, for thee and me, and the ad director of the death columns, and the funeral home folks, and all the chatty company of the non-dead, the never-dying, the eulogists and the not-gone-but-departed. And while we’re at it, let’s hear the story again about how you and dear old X “fished together as boys and I discovered that my destiny was to be in bio-tech and that’s how I made my name and my first mill...”

Requiescat in pace... but where and when and how on earth? M