So Dad’s funeral was really, really hard. It would have been better if we could have had it the week after he died when we were all coping better, but we had to wait three weeks, which is too long.
We told people not to wear black because Dad never liked dark, sombre clothes. When I was a kid he was always encouraging me to wear brightly coloured clothes, without much luck, since like a lot of teenagers I tended to think it was a good idea to dress almost entirely in jeans and black t-shirts. He liked the colour red, so for the funeral I wore a red top and my brown velvet jacket – and my jeans, since I think Dad would want us to go as we were and I am a jeans kind of person.
It was a small funeral, about 40 people were at the church and about 20 came on to the crematorium and to the house for refreshments afterwards. While I know that we were in no condition to handle a big funeral, it also felt kind of wrong that it was so small. My Dad touched a lot of peoples’ lives and many of them were missing on the day. I felt that more of them should have been there.
The fact that it was a Catholic funeral caused me a lot of pain that I’m only just starting to unravel. Standing there with my partner in a church that rejects us, that says we are morally disordered people and that our relationship is sinful, I felt totally excluded from the ritual. I also felt terribly conspicuous sitting with Andy in the front row under the gaze of the priest, relatives and random Catholics who’d come in for the service. I felt anger at being made to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious while being comforted by my partner at my own father’s funeral. We could have just not worried about it, but there would be real consequences for my mother if we’d made ourselves too conspicuous as a lesbian couple and I’ve decided to be sensitive to that as well. This meant we found ourselves in an oppressive double-bind with no good choices.
It’s always a very strange experience to go back and immerse yourself in something after you’ve left it behind and for me it was hard to see just how bizarre the beliefs I was raised in are. I was particularly disturbed and upset by the denial of death – it rather felt like the entire religion has been created to assuage death anxiety. Well, most religions try to assuage death anxiety in one way or another, and since human beings are so immensely averse to the idea of death that’s one of the functions religion serves. However, I really don’t think the Catholic approach is helpful and in many ways I think it actually increases the suffering of the bereaved. The message we were getting at the funeral was:
1. He’s not dead because death doesn’t really exist – denial causes suffering because he is dead and death does exist!
2. We hope that he’s in heaven, but we don’t know if he is and he might not be – causes suffering because it produces fear and anxiety about where the loved one might be.
3. Because we don’t know where he is, we’d better pray for him and offer masses to try to make sure he gets into heaven (you have to pay for the masses obviously) – causes suffering because it puts responsibility on grieving relatives to get loved ones into heaven by doing the right things. This is potentially guilt-inducing.
I’m sure a lot of Catholics have more sophisticated beliefs about death than this, but it’s pretty much where my relatives and mother’s friends are at and I find it disturbing.
My father was lapsed from Catholicism for years and reverted when he became terminally ill. I feel that this happened mainly because he hadn’t made the effort to find another spiritual home and when he found himself dying, it was too late to look for something else. The upshot was that the Catholic funeral didn’t feel like my father at all. He was an anti-authoritarian, non-judgemental man and his spirituality was very much a personal, simple “just me and Jesus” kind of Christianity. He was a bit of an anarchist, really, who always believed in doing his own thing and I honestly think he would have been much more at home in Quakerism or Unitarianism.
The Catholic funeral also reminded me of my father’s lack of spiritual comfort at the end of his life and this is very painful for me. I wish it could have been different for him, but for various reasons he couldn’t trust anyone and, ultimately, I think that included distrust of God as well. It’s interesting that the person who helped my father most when he was dying was an Asian doctor, who he thought was either a Hindu or a Buddhist, and who sat down and talked to him very directly about death.
Andy and I have decided that we’re going to do out own memorial for my father which will involve going to a place that was emotionally significant to him and doing something to memoralise him, such as building a cairn. This will be a place we can return to when we want to remember him.