The phone call from Victoria came around 9am to let me know her mum had died during the night. It hadn’t been unexpected; Joan had been unwell and deteriorating for some time. It was the kind of situation that’s meant to be a relief when it comes. Except it isn’t.
Victoria and I have been friends for 30 years. Far more worldly than me, I was the student side kick to VJ’s sophisticated glamour when we met in the mid eighties. Young, bold, and slightly chaotic, we kept Joan amused (and bemused) with our adventures and exploits. She would shake her head, cluck over our misdemeanours, and worry about our wellbeing. Joan often dropped by our flat to check on her girl. Three decades later, Victoria would be doing the same for Joan.
Seeking some advice about next steps Victoria told me her mum hadn’t wanted a funeral. “Don’t make a fuss” Joan had said. It’s not an uncommon refrain. I could have written the script myself. Before weighing in with advice on how to arrange a funeral, I asked Victoria “what is it you would like to do”, before pausing. “VJ, what is it you need”?
Unsurprisingly, what Victoria needed was to surround herself with friends and family. Some of us knew Joan, but many more simply loved our friend and wanted to be there when she was hurting.
What came together was the perfect non-funeral. Joan was quietly cremated, attended by a small group of immediate family for a simple committal service. Soon after friends gathered at the home Victoria shared with her husband and son. For several hours we drank champagne, talked, reminisced and shared in each other’s company. Victoria had placed photos all around the living room. There was Joan on her wedding day, as a young mother, at Victoria’s own wedding, and with her beloved grandchildren.
As a tribute Victoria had several photos printed onto slim postcards. On the back were the words “be kind, be sweet, be gentle”. When Victoria gave her eulogy (yes Joan, we spoke about you a bit), she told us the story of how these words were Joan’s mantra in life. Many small touches came together for a memorial that honoured Joan’s wishes for something low key, but crucially gave Victoria, her family, and those of us who knew Joan the chance to honour her passing.
It’s important to pause and read between the lines when someone says they don’t want a funeral. Don’t make a fuss is often code for, “I don’t want to be a burden”, common if there has been high intensity of care in the final stages. Other times it’s because a traditional funeral format is just so unrelatable to how life was lived. Imagining the service at a chapel they never went to, likely lead by someone they never knew, it’s understandable when the request is that nothing be done at all.
But funerals and memorials are as much for the people saying goodbye as those who have died. More in fact. When we’re denied any kind of farewell ritual we’re robbed of an important part in the grief journey, and the chance to surround ourselves with those we love when we need them most. If we give ourselves permission to throw aside convention and create deeply personal goodbyes that resonate with the people gathered, we can be a little bit further on the way to making it through.
So Joan, there was a little bit of fuss. I think you’d have been okay with that.