Want a good funeral? Live a good life

Published 1:49 am Saturday, October 15, 2011

A few years ago, our friend Merle Matthews asked someone if he would sing at her funeral.

“I’m ready to go, but I don’t want to go today,” she said, adding that she’d like for him to sing “I’ll Fly Away,” as she believed when it was her time to go, that’s how she’d leave.

Friday, that request and many more were honored in a celebration of life that was oh, so Merle. Hers was an Episcopal service in a Baptist church filled to overflowing, marked with funny remembrances of a life lived joyfully. A catered meal under huge tents followed, with a jazz band providing background music.

It was the third very interesting funeral I’ve attended in the space of five months, which may be a sad commentary on my social life. But it got me to thinking about the different ways people choose to mark the passing of loved ones.

Contrast Friday’s celebration with those so sad that you feel compelled to greet people in hushed tones. Throw a sad funeral and I can weep with the best of them; admittedly, those sometimes can’t be helped. But it’s so much better when the service leaves you uplifted about a life well lived.

It’s no joking matter, but sometimes it helps to joke about it, as in the delightful little book, “Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral.”

When my husband owned a restaurant and was being particularly tyrannical, I would promise him that when he died, I was going to have him cremated and sprinkle his ashes in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. When I spend what he perceives as too much time at the newspaper office, he offers a similar oath: He’ll put my ashes in the inkwell of the press so I can really be a part of the newspaper I love so much.

Years after our friend Mary Helen had conquered breast cancer, she confessed to us that at one point, she told her husband to make sure she was buried in a black dress. All of us girls looked at her and laughed – it’s not like he would have had a choice! Her entire wardrobe is built around that “forgiving” color.

At another recent funeral, the deceased had left written instructions that began with a note to the undertaker, a personal friend. “Please don’t look!” she wrote. It was her brand of humor, and brought joy to mourners when shared at her service.

Stephen Covey advises, “Begin with the end in mind.” Perhaps the lesson here is to live a life worth celebrating, every day, as our friend Merle did for 83 years.

Like Merle when she was signing up a singer, I’m not ready to leave yet. But I’m aiming to live well enough to warrant a celebration, too.