Funerals a chance to reflect

23:30, May 08 2012

I do like a good funeral.

That may sound perverse, but the funeral of someone who has died after a long, fulfilling life is a celebration.

It's often an occasion punctuated by laughter. Thank goodness we've moved on from the days when tradition demanded that funerals were solemn, sombre affairs.

Generally speaking, families these days are largely free to organise the event as they think fit. Often the funeral service includes what you might call an "open mic" forum, where people are invited to come forward and tell their own stories about the deceased. The result is a more relaxed, and often more cathartic, experience. And here's something else about funerals. They provide an opportunity to reflect on your own life.

I attend more funerals these days than I would like to; four or five already this year. Almost invariably, they are humbling experiences. No matter how well I think I knew the person being mourned, the eulogies usually reveal aspects of their lives – personal qualities, notable achievements – that I had no prior knowledge of. Most people are disinclined to blow their own trumpets. It's only after they've gone that you learn that someone you thought led an unremarkable life actually made a profound difference to other people's lives.

An example was a retired primary school principal whose funeral I attended on the Kapiti Coast several years ago. I didn't know Errol well, but regarded him as a good and upright man: a pillar of the community in a low-key way.


What I didn't expect was the succession of heartfelt and moving tributes paid to him by former pupils who had travelled a long way to attend. The impact this quiet, self-effacing man had made on them was obviously indelible.

On such occasions I am sometimes prompted to measure myself against the person who has died, and I don't necessarily emerge well from the comparison. What brought about this musing was a funeral I attended recently in Waipukurau for the mother of a good friend. She was not someone I knew well; my wife and I attended mainly because of our long-standing relationship with her daughter.

But once again, the many eulogies provided a glimpse of a life that, although lived simply and unobtrusively, was full and rich in the ways that count.

Joyce was brought up in the predominantly Maori settlement of Porangahau, in southern Hawke's Bay, where her father was a drover. As someone remarked at the funeral, the family was so much a part of the local community that it never occurred to them that they weren't Maori.

Joyce's story was, in many ways, typical of the New Zealand of her generation. She met and married Dave, who worked for the Post Office. He went off to war and when he returned, they began a family.

Dave was the postmaster in a succession of small towns: Porangahau, Bulls, Collingwood, Ohakune, Warkworth. The family never had a car, travelling everywhere by public transport.

Joyce was a small, jolly woman who somehow reminded me of Charles Dickens' character Clara Peggotty, the loyal and loving housekeeper in David Copperfield. (Perhaps it had something to do with knitting, of which both Joyce and Peggotty were fond.)

Wherever the family happened to be living, Joyce made a point of involving herself in community activities. She was a lifelong stalwart of the Country Women's Institute and was a willing helper at the schools her children attended.

She was a loving mother who cooked, sewed, knitted and gardened. One of her sons recalled the time when an exasperated Joyce whacked one of her daughters on the legs with a wooden ruler. I couldn't help thinking of the irony that under present-day law this irreproachable woman could have been arrested and charged with a criminal offence.

Dave died years ago, but Joyce ploughed on. She knitted clothes for premature babies, wrote the minutes of the local Women's Institute meetings and was a staunch member of the RSA women's section. Above all she was a devoted mother and grandmother, whose house in Waipukurau was a place of warmth and welcome to all her close-knit extended family.

The funeral service, rather like the Anzac Day commemorations that Joyce didn't live to attend this year, was a snapshot of a vanishing New Zealand. Family aside, the mourners – who turned out in large numbers – were overwhelming grey-haired and many were frail. They are the last of a generation whose expectations of life, by modern standards, were modest; a generation that believed in the old-fashioned virtues of hard work, thrift, self-sufficiency and pitching in when needed. It was a generation that kept its head down and would have been mystified by the vulgar self-aggrandisement of today's celebrity culture.

Perhaps the worst that could be said of them is that they valued conformity rather too highly, but in other ways they personified values that succeeding generations might do well to emulate.

Manawatu Standard