My guest blogger is Ken Roberts, a retired nurse, artist, writer, and renovator. A country town nurse for many decades, he’s seen his fair share of death and small-town funerals. But a recent invitation to a ‘memorial party’ left him bemused. What is it? What do I wear?
This is Ken’s memorial party experience:
After the recent passing of a dear friend, I was very grateful to be included in her farewell in these times of limited numbers of mourners. This was held in the city and was something that I had never experienced before: a memorial party.
Looking back, my experience with funerals was ordinary for me but maybe not for others. I attended a catholic primary school and hymn singing and going to Mass during the school week was common. It was usual that at the regular requiem masses for funerals, we would all march over, very orderly in double file, climb the stairs to the choir and merrily sing the hymns with a watchful Nun on guard to stop any shenanigans. Depending on where you were sitting you would glimpse the coffin and sometimes hear people crying. It was all very matter of fact.
Growing up in a small country town in those days, practices took a long time to change. As I grew, and coming from a large extended family, there were infrequent funerals to attend of relatives. They were always at a Church and usually followed by a boozy wake at some family member’s home.
Changing times: a non-church funeral
Nothing much changed until the local funeral director set up a new office which included a chapel. Some locals slowly began to use that option. It seemed very “modern” to be out of a church and in a building that had once housed the local video shop. I must be quite traditional because I wasn’t sure how I felt about this change. I think the fact that the funeral directors were locals and they understood people’s needs and they catered for what they wanted so very well made it an easier and more accepting transition.
When my mother died and I was helping to organise the funeral, we went the traditional route-church, cemetery and wake in the church hall. My parents were the only practising Catholics on either side of the family and so we honoured that but, keeping it in mind, we tried to make it as simple and less religious as possible. Unfortunately, the local Priest had other ideas and he proceeded to include lots of scriptures, incense and holy water blessings! We were not happy.
The turning point: a short and sweet funeral for Dad, away from the church
As a result of this when a few years later my father passed away, we took a stand and bravely by-passed the church and held his service in the funeral director’s chapel with our much loved female funeral director celebrant reading the eulogy and running the no-nonsense down to earth service. Dad was a plain and simple man and wouldn’t have wanted a fuss. He had a plain raw pine coffin with rope handles. (It was good enough for the last Pope!) My sister, a former florist, made the flowers for the top of the coffin with natives from her garden intertwined with rusty barbed wire. (Dad used to make things from barbed wire.)
Somebody noted that it was one of the shortest funerals they had been to, 20 minutes tops. It was still a touching send-off but it was edited down to the essentials that we wanted. We went to another church hall for various reasons and had a simple traditional wake catered by the local church ladies.
I think that sparked a turning point for me in opening up my former conservative ideas about how to farewell people. I could see that as time progressed and people were less religious and less church-going, they wanted something more reflective of who they were in their former lives as an appropriate send off.
The Memorial Party
This was yet again another “new” step that I was interested to see. I wasn’t sure if you had to dress up or go casual, I didn’t know. I ended up doing nice casual, slacks rather than jeans with a jacket and coloured shirt. I needn’t have worried, it was a very casual no-fuss affair, which suited my friend’s former lifestyle. It was held in a function room at a suburban city hotel and, because of Covid restrictions, there were under 50 attending.
The family had farewelled her body at a private cremation a few days before. There was a guest book and a photo display and a brochure. I wondered if there would be speeches but apart from when a relative thanked everyone for attending and said some brief words, that was it.
I was glad that her adult children didn’t force themselves to speak because we all knew how upset they were. I was speaking to the three of them at one point and we all ended up both laughing and crying together. There was plenty of food and drink and time to reflect and chat.
I was amazed that three hours passed so very quickly. I thought it was a lovely, relaxed and genuine way to honour her life. It was loose, unstructured and free of any formality at all. She would have even said that was too much fuss. Her spirit was there in the words spoken between those who loved her.
It was a party, not a funeral
I think that this type of farewell was a very suitable “new” alternative and one that will be surely adapted in the future to suit each individual. It’s even gone beyond calling it a “funeral” because it actually was more of a party. I have no idea how traditions will develop but there is no closing of the floodgates and returning to days of yesteryear, times of mourning clothes and certain “standards” being kept.
Nowadays word of somebody’s passing is usually announced and spread via social media. As a child, I remember mum used to listen to the wireless at 10 past 8 every morning when they would announce the local deaths and funerals. That was the social media of that day. Times and traditions will continue to change to suit the times we live in, there is no going back…
Ken Roberts (Central Gippsland artist, writer, renovator)