While I am away in New York City for a couple of weeks, a fantastic group of elderbloggers and elderblog readers agreed to fill in for me. Today it is Ian Bertram. Ian started his working life as an urban planner and spent 30 years in local government in the UK. Since being declared redundant, he has variously worked as a consultant planner, as a trainer for community groups, as chairman of a community owned social enterprise and now spends his time at play as an artist. (Its too much fun to be called work). He blogs at Panchromatica, has images on Flickr and Ipernity and sells his work at local galleries and on the net at Etsy.
The death of any loved one is difficult, but it is harder still when as in the case of my late and greatly beloved aunt, a remarkable woman I her own right, but also the last family member of a remarkable generation.
My aunt, died two months short of her 90th birthday. Back in 1991, she left me instructions that on her death, her body was to be given for medical research. She had done all the preparatory work and as next of kin I had to confirm that I had no objections. When she died a few weeks ago, it thus fell to me to follow through on her wishes.
Sadly I was unable to do so since neither of the local university teaching hospitals could take her. I suspect if she had considered this possibility at the time I would have had equally clear instructions for her funeral. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and I had to try and make the arrangements I felt she would have wanted.
I’ve touched on funereal matters before, in my own blog. This guest post for Ronni revisits some of those issues. I suppose death might seem rather a gloomy thought for a blog about aging, but my belief is that we cannot truly accept growing older until we also face up to our own inevitable passing.
I’ve never been to a Jewish or Muslim funeral so I can’t speak for what happens there. British Christian funerals are, however, underpinned by a strong tradition of hymn singing. The effect of that is very different from the same hymns sung by the choir. The shared experience of singing is an important part of the ritual.
My mother-in-law's funeral included one hymn – How Great Thou Art - with a wonderful tune (and for a believer, powerful words) that even as a long-standing atheist still managed to raise the hair on the back of my neck. Add Abide with Me and The Day Thou Gavest and you have a strong – and shared - emotional experience.
My aunt wasn’t a member of any organised church. She was, unlike me, a believer but in that inchoate way so common in the UK. It seems only about 7 percent of us attend the Anglican Church with any frequency and only about 16 percent attend any Christian church.
For the atheist, there is no equivalent to the Christian hymn. There is obviously powerful and emotional music to draw on, but it will not be shared in the same way as the Christian hymn. Nor is there a shared equivalent to the St James Bible. As a consequence, since most people probably do not plan their funeral in advance, I suspect that when the time comes the relatives settle for the comfort of a familiar ritual, even if they are not actually believers.
Back in 2004, I listed a few possibilities to be played at my own funeral. My aunt’s passing made me revisit this and Ronni’s invitation gives me a chance to share those thoughts with you her readers, a much wider audience than I could ever expect on my own blog.
I chose three pieces for my aunt, each with strong emotional overtones.
As she arrived, we played a brass band arrangement of a hymn tune, The Day Thou Gavest. The tune, the words and the melancholy brass band arrangement all hang together.
The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.
As an atheist of, course, this is not a message I personally subscribe to, but the metaphor of death as the closing of the day is very powerful and does not depend on religious imagery for that power.
During the service, we played another piece of music, one that she chose for the funeral service of her husband some 30 years ago, a setting of a poem by Burns, sung by Kenneth McKellar.
Oh, my love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June
Oh, my love is like a melody
That's sweetly played in tune
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till all the seas gang dry.
Till all the seas gang dry, my dear,
Till all the seas gang dry
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till all the seas gang dry.
There is a theatre saying, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
This version is by Eva Cassidy [3:35 minutes]:
Finally as we filed out, I chose something more upbeat, in a deliberate reflection of the New Orleans tradition of the slow dirge on the way to the cemetery and cheerful happy music on the way back. This was Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – a powerful and life enhancing secular hymn to humanity.
So where am I with my own arrangements? When the time comes I hope to have the entire ceremony mapped out with readings and music chosen. For the time being though here are some musical possibilities.
West End Blues – Louis Armstrong (if only for the tremendous opening solo)
For All We Know - Billie Holiday (because I can’t imagine going anywhere without Billie)
Vissi d’arte from Tosca (it passed the neck hair test even though when I first heard it I had no idea of the meaning or the context)
Three from Duke Ellington:
Ducky Wucky – (it makes me laugh)
Warm Valley – (warm and sensuous - Duke at his best)
Caravan – (more classic Duke)
A final word from Seneca:
“Death is non-existence, and I know already what that means. What was before me will happen again after me. If there is any suffering in this state, there must have been such suffering also in the past, before we entered the light of day. As a matter of fact, however, we felt no discomfort then.
“And I ask you, would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted? We mortals also are lighted and extinguished; the period of suffering comes in between, but on either side there is a deep peace.
“For, unless I am very much mistaken, my dear Lucilius, we go astray in thinking that death only follows, when in reality it has both preceded us and will in turn follow us. Whatever condition existed before our birth is death. For what does it matter whether you do not begin at all, or whether you leave off, inasmuch as the result of both these states is non-existence?”
I don’t accept the last sentence in this quote, but I do believe in the essential truth of the passage. This life is all we will have. We must make the most of it and that includes leaving not grief and sorrow behind us, but a positive example of a life well lived.
EDITORIAL NOTE: While I am away, The Elder Storytelling Place is on hiatus. You can read past stories here. And if you are inclined, you could send in stories for publication when I return. All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.