Sunday 24 August 2014

Funerals: a reason to be cheerful?

A week ago, I went to a funeral in London of a friend and former BBC colleague. He was a Roman Catholic, although I don't recall him displaying much enthusiasm for the church. This was reflected in the service which seemed to me to be more secular than religious. But as I have never been to a Catholic funeral before, I am not able to judge with any authority.

What did strike me about the 200+ mourners was that at least 95% wore dark clothes and I was one of the few men who did not wear a tie.

How different this is to many of the funerals that now take place in Australia, the land of my birth. It is quite common there for mourners to wear casual clothes. In some cases, mourners are invited to "wear something bright" to reflect that the event is a celebration of the deceased's life.

When my mother died, Rena M. Wood, aged 95 in Melbourne in 2007, the large turnout of mourners wore a variety of clothes from dark suits and ties to bright casual, tie-less outfits. It was, on the whole, a cheerful occasion with a good sprinkling of admiration and amusing anecdotes and laughter. My mother had not died of anything in particular, but of old age. In her advanced years, she was consistently upbeat about her life and achievements and declared herself "ready to go", whenever that might be.

My mother's funeral was so different from the one I attended for my former colleague. He had died at the early age of 61 after a very long battle with cancer. So, although the event was a celebration of his colourful and entertaining life and achievements, it was also a time of enormous sadness because the cancer had devastated his family and cut short his broadcasting career.

There was another big difference between the two funerals: Both my mother's private cremation service and the thanksgiving service later in the day were filmed. Crematoriums and many funeral chapels in Australia routinely video services and offer a DVD copy to the family. Some families take up the offer; others do not. It is left entirely to them.

Although I had seen my mother about a week before her death, I was back in London by the time she died, but a friend who has a TV production company in Melbourne happily agreed to send a two-camera crew to film the service. None of the mourners objected or even raised an eyebrow of disapproval, as far as I could tell.

The raw video from the two cameras was sent to me in London where I edited it into a complete record of the service. By the time I had completed this, I almost felt that I had been there. Members of my immediate family were very happy to get the finished DVDs for their family history files.

When I told an English friend about the filming, she bluntly declared it to be "weird". She said she would never want to watch a recording of her parents' funerals. She didn't get on with either parent so she wouldn't wish to be reminded of what might of been had she not had such a dysfunctional relationship with them.  I didn't always get on with my mother, but she was an extraordinary woman of generosity and with a vividly-amusing streak of eccentricity. And, of course, she was "ready to go".

As I am on the subject of funerals, let me also tell you about one that came with an emotional punch at the end. It was an austere non-religious event with no singing -- just eulogies from the deceased woman's daughter and two sons. The contributions from the daughter and one of the sons were heartfelt, but not at all controversial. Not so the speech by the other son. He took the opportunity to reveal the extended abuse his mother has suffered from her father. He went so far as to suggest that she had lost one of her babies as a result of an unprovoked beating. Furthermore, he denounced a Catholic priest who had been involved with the family. It was, without exaggeration, jaw-dropping stuff. Neither of the other siblings was aware that this was coming, but they seemed not to be offended. They felt their brother had a right to get it all off his chest, which he most certainly did.

UPDATE: My brother, Jeffrey A. Richardson, died in Australia in March this year (2020). Because of covid-19 travel restrictions, neither I nor my younger sister living in New Zealand could attend the funeral service. There was also a limit of no more than 10 people allowed to be present at the service. However, those family and friends living in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and around Australia were still able to witness the service as it was live streamed by the funeral company. Additionally, a recording of the ceremony was made available on the company's website for a month. An excellent service that is likely to become more widespread.

Finally, if you would like to learn more about my mother's memorable life, click here: Rena's obituaries.

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