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A "Happy" Death, a "Happy" Funeral

Bob Fells's picture

A “Happy” Death, a “Happy” Funeral

I don’t know if there can be such a thing as a happy death or, for that matter, a happy funeral. It sounds like a contradiction in terms but if there are such things, then my Uncle Ernie surely had them when he passed away on September 2. I called him Uncle Ernie but he was really my uncle-in-law, if there is such a term. Ernie was Maureen’s uncle, married to her mother’s sister. I’ve known Uncle Ernie for as long as I’ve known Maureen, that is, for 45 years. He and Fran had been married for 61 years and had five children, all of whom were present at the end. Ernie was not important in the worldly sense but he worked hard to provide for his family and had a ton of friends. I used to wonder how he had so many friends wherever he went. After all, Ernie wasn’t a celebrity or wealthy, he didn’t even have a boat or any of the things that usually assure a steady stream of friends. Then one day I figured it out. Ernie had so many friends because he made a point of making a friend out of everyone he met. It was that simple.

He remained healthy until the last couple of years. He fell and broke his hip and that seemed to begin his health problems. Then his kidneys began to fail and he required dialysis a couple of times each week. But his mind remained as sharp as the proverbial tack right up to his last day on earth. Maureen and I visited him in early August when we were on vacation. By then he was in the hospital but he was game for the fight for life. He was not going to give up the ghost willingly. But he was 85 and nature was bound to take its course sooner or later. Finally, his condition became such that his doctor told him that if he continued dialysis the strain could cause a fatal heart attack. So that was that and Ernie announced that all he wanted now was to go home. He meant that both in the physical sense of returning to his house where he lived with Fran, and also in the spiritual sense.

So with all his family gathered around him at home he received many visitors on what turned out to be his last full day on earth. It seemed like “a living wake” in that people stopping by to pay their respects did not see a corpse in a casket but a man sitting in an easy chair saying goodbye to each person. We spoke to him on the phone that night. He told us that he was having “a going away party.” His voice was strong and his mind sharp. The last words he said to me were, “I love you Bob.” I’ll remember those words for the rest of my life. The next afternoon he slipped away in his sleep with his family gathered around his bed and Fran holding his hands. It’s the sort of death scene we see in movies and wish for ourselves.

Of course, there was a funeral service at the local funeral home. The family didn’t need any assistance from me and in fact one of Ernie’s son-in-law’s had worked at several funeral homes. Ernie had asked him to “check him out” before the family arrived for the viewing. He said that if he didn’t look good the casket should be closed. It turned out that Ernie not only looked as if he were sleeping, he seemed to have a slight smile on his face. Everyone noticed that. There were two visitation times and we stayed for both. A steady stream of friends constantly circulated in and out of the room. There was an Honor Guard from the Knights of Columbus, and because Ernie was active in his church, the deacon who led the prayer service had known Ernie for years. As you sow so shall you reap.

A funeral mass followed the next day and then our cars processed to the nearby national cemetery for burial. We had a police escort both from the funeral home to the church, then from the church to the cemetery. We were the last car and it was the only time in my life that the sight of a police cruiser with flashing lights and sirens in my rearview mirror did not send chills up my spine. Every part of the service from the visitation through the committal service was meaningful for all who attended. If I had to eliminate one part I wouldn’t know what to choose because each had its own special significance. Given where I work and what I do for a living, this may sound like pandering of the most obvious sort. But my presence at Ernie’s funeral was not in any official capacity. I was family and mourning (and how rarely we hear that term any more) the loss of dear man and friend. If I wasn’t impressed I’d keep my mouth shut in this space.

Afterwards, I observed to Maureen that what we had just been through the previous two days was so emotional, that is, meaningful and significant, that I could not understand how anybody could want no services, no interment, or no memorialization. It’s like wanting all signs of your existence to be wiped off the face of the earth. No doubt, there are some terrible people, abusive people, and when they perish everyone who knew them says, “Thank God he’s dead.” But I think, or rather I hope, this accounts for a very small number of individuals. I like to believe that most people are mourned when they pass, even if it’s just by a small circle of family and friends.

I believe that in the last 20 years many people have lost sight of a concept that for centuries was so obvious that it was mainly unspoken. That concept is that “funerals are for the living.” I have personally spoken with people who authorized a direct disposition for their mom or dad because that’s what their parents said they wanted. But these people came away emotionally dissatisfied and unfulfilled, even expressing regret that they followed their parent’s wishes. In a sense, this is like going to a restaurant to discover that your dinner has been selected for you and you have no say in the matter. Even if it’s paid for, you don’t like this arrangement. Worse, the person who ordered your dinner isn’t even present.

Current survey data from Pew Research indicates that individuals who say they have no religious affiliation has climbed to almost 25 percent of the population. There also seems to be a correlation between “unchurched” people and their preference for direct disposition. Our industry sees a ray of sunshine in that data with celebrants organizing a “no religion” funeral service but I suspect that the jury is still out on whether the growing number of unchurched folks will ultimately opt for celebrant services in significant numbers. I hope so and not just because it’s good for business. It may be significant that the survey firms label such people as “nones” and indeed that’s what they will have – nothing. I am looking forward to the time when the nones tell their families that they want nothing and the family responds by saying, “Sorry but this is our funeral service, and you’re just the reason for it.”


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