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To gather or not to gather?

To gather or not to gather?

by Sharon Simpson


There is a trend these days for people to request no ceremony when they pass away. You can read this in the obituaries – “No service by request”. When you type these words into Google, you will find over 29 million links that reference this sentence. Why do people make this choice?

For some, it’s financial. A service costs money and they don’t want to or can’t afford the money it takes to rent a room and provide food for those in attendance.

For others, it’s the logistics. There may be distance or capacity that make it challenging for their loved ones to organize a celebration. For those who are ‘no religion’, there are limited spaces and rare officiants available to hold the service.

For some families, the thought of the entire family gathering together brings up age-old hurt, painful memories or current disagreements. The potential of fighting, or discomfort among a family circle, is what moves the dying individual to request no service.

For some families, the thought of who might show up for a memorial is enough to request no service. I was once at a funeral where the widow and mistress sat on opposite sides of the front row. It was uncomfortable.

Some families are very private and want to grieve in a smaller way, especially if they are grieving the loss of an infant or someone who has died by suicide.

For some, it is about believing that their life is not worth the time, effort or money involved in a gathering. They have failures, regrets, they have harmed others, they have low self-esteem, they don’t think that there is anything good that can be said or that their life wasn’t important. They want to spare others from having to shine up their life to make it look good enough.

I’ve been at many celebrations of life; a secret funeral, by invitation only; attended by four people; individuals requested to leave; estranged son showed up and one where both the perpetrator and the victim attended. It’s not always simple. So why do we gather after a person passes away? Is it worth it?

Gathering together is a way to navigate grief. When a person has passed away, it can seem like a dream. Many reflect on the memorial service as a reminder to believe that their loved one is no longer with us.

Gathering together is a way to understand the breadth of a loved one’s life. It is one of the rare times in our culture when we carve out the time to focus on one person, to hear the scope of their life and to hear their story. We get to see them as a multi-faceted person. All who knew them are invited into the fullness of their life. For many, it is a time for others to hear of their foundational faith.
Gathering together is a gift to the next generation. The elderly who made it through poverty, hunger and war are a beacon of light for a generation who don’t know that this is possible. It brings inspiration to hear of challenges, hurdles, circumstances and perseverance.

Gathering together is honouring the value of each person’s life, whether or not it was a life well lived. For those who struggle with addiction or mental illness or even hurtful behaviours, a celebration of life is complicated. As our society becomes less and less comfortable with death and dying, we are also becoming more and more comfortable with authenticity and respect in these settings. I’ve experienced memorial services where these challenging parts of a person’s life are not skipped over or dismissed.

Gathering together gives others – close and distant – an opportunity to express their condolences, their appreciation of an individual and their support to the loved ones who are grieving. Stories of their life are told, love is expressed, grief is shared. It is often surprising who comes to a gathering to celebrate a life.

You already know this, but you won’t be there when the service on your behalf takes place. Your family may do better than you expect with the challenge. Hearing about your life in a different light may bring reconciliation, understanding, peace, inspiration, hope, resolve to do better. Humans are designed to be impacted by ceremony, tradition and reflection. If you are thinking of saying “no service by request”, I encourage you to reflect on whether or not you can trust your loved ones to gather, celebrate, reflect and grieve. Perhaps now is the time to speak with them about your wishes, your hesitations and the wounding that causes divisions.

Your gathering may be one of the sentinel moments in their lives. May God give you wisdom.

Sharon Simpson is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Home in Abbotsford.

Author: Steve Almond

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