Guest Blogger Bob Brady: It's About Time
Guest Blogger Mary Jamison: The Lessons Keep Coming

Guest Blogger Ian Bertram: Preparing

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.

Comments

My mother prescribed her hymns -- and we sang them with gusto when she was gone.

I like your choices. Billie, The Duke and Ella are indispensable in my not so humble opinion. I'm thinking of The Clancy Brothers' "Isn't it Grand?" except I don't think the priest would agree.

What a very moving and well written story. Just yesterday I met with a friend I had not seen for some time and much of our talk centered on funeral arrangements. I find it a relief to sometimes discuss such matters. I am reminded to get moving on my own plans, especially since I am a free thinker and would not want confusion or discomfort left to those in charge.

Ian, terrific post and fodder for thought.

Great choices, my friend; though I love the old deep south spirituals (appeals to the old-fashioned side of me), as a non-believer, those old hymns might seem out of place.

So, I might fill in with these:

Stardust by Glenn Miller

Tennessee by Hans Zimmer (from the movie "Pearl")

And When I Die by Blood, Sweat and Tears.

I'm going with free. That's important as my income shrinks. The military will bury me at no cost, and maybe my kids will say a word or two. What ever happens, I learned after my mother's death that there needs to be an ending ceremony.

This strong willed woman wanted no ceremony, and my stepfather had her cremated. For years she sat in a box in her chair then one day she vanished. Where she went, I do not know and do mourn.

An impressive post. Like you, I am a non-believer. But there is poetry in the church service, and I am perfectly fine with some traditional Christian hymns. "How Great Thou Art" is good, and as you say has a beautiful tune.

And when the church stuff is over I want my kids to have a big party and set off fireworks.

And you know, we could be wrong. I might see colors and sparkles from somewhere we never imagined! (probably not)

Whatever makes you comfortable is what governs our belief in an after life, or not. I am very pragmatic and believe as you do, Ian. Death is the end, period.

I have made arrangements to be cremated and have told my children to have whatever kind of service gives them peace. I prefer a celebration of life to a funeral, but my family are the ones who the service is for and I am leaving that decision up to them. Perhaps it's time to talk about that with them.

I do love the hymn, Abide With Me, though. It was sung at my grandfather's funeral.

Pattie - love that Blood Sweat and Tears track but I'd forgotten all about it. I must try to get my old vinyl copied over to CD (along with more Duke, Johnny Winter, Ella and many others)

I was at an atheist's funeral and the only song he requested was Sinatra's "I did it my way."

As a Christian, I found it profoundly sad.

Several years ago, I was asked to sing "Amazing Grace" at a funeral. I didn't know the deceased, but I did know his son and daughter-in-law. It turned out the family wanted the hymn sung as a solo with no accompaniment of any kind. I wondered how I was going to get through it since I'm one of those sentimental types who tear up easily and often.

The strategy I settled upon, however, was simple. Remembering that the funeral was not about me or my emotions, I simply prayed, "Lord, make me a jukebox." When the time came to sing, I was ready.

Too bad it has to end.

Ian,

I, too, am an unbeliever and subscribe fully to Seneca's position on death. That being said, I agree that there are many hymns and other religious music that are quite stirring and can invoke in me powerful emotions, even though the words hold no meaning.

Most of the many wakes and funerals I've attended over the years have been heavy on religious content and so much alike that (to borrow from Yogi Berra) it was like "experiencing deja vous all over again." Everyone seemed to be reading from the same script, using the same repetitious and boring rhetoric. Needless to say, even though some of the music was inspiring, if it hadn't been for the fact that I wanted my presence to be an expression of my sympathy for the grieving
families, I'd have stayed at home.

One exception was a non-religious service that had been planned by the deceased. While dying a lingering and painful death from cancer, she had chosen the format, the music and the readings. She had also written a letter to her family and friends, which her best friend read aloud. It was short and simple; no regrets, no complaints, just heart-felt words telling her family and friends that she loved and appreciated them and that death was a price she was willing to pay for the privilege of living and being a part of their lives. With no exaggeration, "there wasn't a dry eye in the room." This service, although relatively short, had more meaning for me, and I'm sure for many others in attendance, than all those dry, religious services put together, and then some. This has inspired me to begin planning my own non-religious funeral service.

Since most of my family and friends are believers and the purpose of a funeral is really to provide closure for the living, I can understand someone's desire for their family to conduct any type of service that provides them peace. It is also my desire that my friends and family achieve closure and peace. But, the price I've paid to be a free-thinker and live accordingly has been too steep for me to want people's memories of me, my beliefs and their effects on how I lived my life, obscured or watered down by the inclusion of religious platitudes in my funeral service.

I'm not saying that there's a right way or a wrong way, here. Choosing how one wishes their funeral conducted is strictly a personal matter. But, everyone should leave instructions detailing their wishes so that their survivors are not left wondering what to do, as you were when your aunt died.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have written instructions to be cremated and for them to do what feels right to them. My mother and father both asked for cremation and no service. Mom died first and people were mad at Dad and us for eons. Dad mourned her until he died and so did we for a long time. When he died we cremated him and invited all both parents friends and our family to a large dinner in his favorite Chinese restaurant. It was wonderful, allowed us to say goodbye, and gave us peace finally about Mom. We all just do the best we can.

Eva Cassidy was a wonderful selection. This singer never received the recognition she deserved, but had a brief flurry of appreciation after her death -- too young.

Sounds like you've made a good selection of tunes for yourself that cover the range of emotions with music significant to you.

I certainly appreciate the inclusion of Billie, and Duke.

You might want to give a listen to Shirley Horn's "Summer (Estate'.)"

I've just had a wonderful letter from one of her (many) male friends, recalling her regular weekly performances on the local market, where for years she sold second hand books and bric a brac well into her 70s. One story made me laugh out loud.

Elder gent: How much is this cup?
A: The price is on the handle
Gent (after checking): But it's chipped!
A: That's why the price is chipped.

As you can see I used the word performance accurately...

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