Funerals offer lessons for the living

00:18, May 09 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.

The format was once strictly controlled by the celebrant, who was usually a cleric. I still regret that my family had little say in my father's funeral nearly 20 years ago, but that was how things were done then.

Traditionally minded Catholics – and probably members of certain other faiths too – still believe there's a "proper" way to mark someone's death.

Some Catholics don't like eulogies being delivered as part of the requiem mass, believing that the purpose is not to reflect on the deceased's life but to pray for his or her soul.

But 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. It shouldn't be so frivolous as to be disrespectful, but it can be an occasion for laughter as well as tears.

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.

I have reached that point in life when I'm not only seeing off the last of my parents' generation but also mourning an increasing number of my contemporaries.

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 essentially modest and not inclined to blow their own trumpets. It's only after they've gone that you learn that someone you may have thought led an unremarkable life actually did noble or courageous things out of sight.

They may have made a profound difference to other people's lives in ways that you never imagined.

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 – our daughters were good friends – but regarded him as a good and upright man: a pillar of the community in a low-key, conservative way.

What I didn't expect was the succession of moving tributes paid to him by former pupils who had travelled a long way to attend his funeral. The impact this quiet, self-effacing man had made on their lives 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. It can be sobering to speculate about what people might say at my own funeral, assuming anyone bothers to turn up.

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 quietly 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 – a New Zealand now rapidly receding into history. She met and married Dave, who worked for the Post Office. He went off to war and when he returned, they began to raise 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 loving and loyal 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, and 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 attendance at her funeral was a measure of the affection felt towards her.

The venue was crowded and the tributes, including one from a representative of the Maori community at Porangahau, were heartfelt. The 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 were overwhelmingly 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.