Let's talk about dying: Fractures around funerals

2013-07-09 10:00

As Madiba’s health fails him, his family’s skirmishing may be unseemly, but it’s not unusual.

Qunu or Mvezo? Most of us try for privacy and no washing of dirty linen in public.

As a nation, we’d prefer our beloved icon’s slow fading away to be bathed in dignity, but we are now witness to a public family spat.

Families fracturing around funerals is not uncommon.

University of the Western Cape Professor Sean Davison wrote of his mother’s death in Before We Say Goodbye (Penguin 2012): “Jo told her, ‘Philippa, we will always be sisters but we will never be friends.’ Inside me I know this opportunity has long been lost. The family will dissolve after the funeral.”

Some of us watch our loved ones die, while others don’t.

Either way, there are numerous practical arrangements to be made: death certificates, notifying banks, contacting undertakers, letting people know, choosing a coffin, deciding if the casket will be open or closed, deciding who might speak; and, of course, food, food, and more food.

All of this when you may be in a state of shock – bruised and dazed.

Add in sleeping badly for a few nights and what’s probable is that you’re not at your thinking best – yet the occasion calls for fast decision-making.

Is there any way we could make it easier for those left behind?

How many of us have written out exactly what should happen when we die?

We need to work things out in advance and write them down precisely.

Most of us shy away from this.

A case in point is my late husband Joe Slovo.

We were into the last week of his life.

He still hadn’t written a will, and this was his fourth year of living with cancer.

It’s not as though death was being sprung on him unexpectedly.

But it was difficult for him to dictate a will.

He behaved as though it was his death warrant.

His mind was clear but his hands were shaky, and the bank delayed recognising the will because of the shaky signature.

What about the funeral?

When you’re a public figure, you are public property.

As family, you accept that some choices get taken over, but there may be certain things you would like to be respected.

I knew ANC and SA Communist Party officials would organise the funeral and personal requests needed to be specific.

Joe’s wish for no ostentation and a simple pine coffin was helpful.

But should we unreservedly implement the wishes of the deceased? Months ago, I sipped tea with veteran activist Phyllis Naidoo, known as “Aunt Phil”.

We talked about what she wanted to happen once she died.

I favoured a vigil, as happened with her son Sadhan the evening before his burial in Lusaka.

People had sat quietly and occasionally someone got up to share their thoughts. The inclusivity was wonderful.

Aunt Phil, however, spoke of a friend who had the speediest and simplest of funerals, and that’s what she wanted.

“No fuss. No bother,” she said. We ended up debating who the funeral was for: the person who died or the persons left behind?

I lobbied for the living. Funerals, at their best, help us on our journey of grief towards healing and acceptance.

Aunt Phil died in hospital without a living will in place, without having written down her wishes. She was an atheist.

Her memorial took place in an Anglican church with a Eucharist service. Her ashes were scattered at sea, mingled with those of her late husband, MD Naidoo.

Her family worked out what was most satisfying and supportive to them.

Several recent deaths of family and close friends have left me gobsmacked at just how many land mines detonate at this most difficult time.

Family histories and second marriages bring their complications.

Do much-beloved stepchildren have the same rights as those in the direct bloodline? Joe’s stepdaughter Kyla was a family representative on the funeral committee.

Cremation or burial? Who sits where at the service? Is there a difference if the couple have been together for 20 years but never married?

What’s the expected order of walking behind the coffin? What will happen to the ashes? Where and when?

What should be the wording on the tombstone or plaque? What about an order of service and a guide to symbolism to help those of other denominations?

A Jewish ceremony can be like watching a foreign movie without subtitles.

Non-Jewish people may not know that the phrase, “I wish you long life”, is offered to the deceased’s family members.

During Aunt Phil’s service, many didn’t know when to stand, to sit or to kneel.

A female moment, in a recent Muslim ceremony of one of our stalwarts, was inappropriately interrupted by the arrival of political dignitaries.

Somebody in the presidency didn’t do their homework.

We live in a diverse society. We want to honour the dead and support the living, and a multicultural, multidenominational check list would help us behave more sensitively.

But most of all, we need to be ready with our own specifics. We can’t choose the time of our dying.

The Marikana 34, the 15 killed in the bakkie-bus crash in North West last weekend – they were in the full flow of life.

Money and fame don’t protect you from death’s choice of timing. Actor James Gandolfini, aka Tony from The Sopranos, died suddenly on holiday, aged 51.

If we really want to make it easier for those left behind, to help them navigate differences, then the kindest thing to do is the most difficult thing.

We need to write down, with as many details as possible, what should happen: place of burial, service details, property disposal.

Many of us write our wedding vows, so why not give our exit the same attention?

Then, over time, you might revisit what you’ve written because we change.

One day, you might want Prince’s Little Red Corvette playing at your funeral, but the next day you might change your mind.

 

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