Reflecting on the Choice of Memorializing Loved Ones

Where & however an aim is accomplished
through eulogies, chants, good sayings,
donations, & family customs,
follow them diligently there & that way.
(AN 5.49)

The above passage, which comes from the Kosala Sutta, led me to reflect on the way that I handled my mother’s funeral versus my husband’s lack of a funeral. My mom left complete instructions on what to do, whom to call, whom to have say prayers, whom to have sing, and what song; I did not have to wonder about anything, just execute the plan. She definitely wanted a specific type of funeral with a reception after the service. That felt right. And nobody complained about it, at least not to my face.

For my husband Ed, I also had instructions. A simple cremation and scattering of his ashes at sea—no funeral, no memorial, etc. His feeling was that the people who cared about him had been part of his life and it was not his job as a corpse to have a service to make others feel better. Also, he knew that it would have been a strain on me. So that was clear. And I followed his instructions.

Were people unhappy? Yes, I know they were because a couple of them approached me after his death and made comments like, “OK, that whole no funeral thing, you’re going to ignore that right?”  To their dismay, my reply, was, “No, I’m not going to ignore that. I’m following his wishes.”

At the time, both decisions seemed right, but were they?

When someone dies, we tend to make their death about us. The positive part of this is that grief is the way in which we awaken ourselves to witness transition. Our grief for someone who has died is about our transition in acknowledging that they are gone, and also that our own life has changed. When we move with those changes we are empowered because we are choosing a new way forward. Even if it is letting go of childhood trauma, or creating a new lifestyle, or grieving the loss of someone you loved, you can own this and create something new. In fact, you want to own this and actively create your new way of moving through this world.

A funeral is a specific ritual that can be a milestone, marking progress on your grief journey. Some people look to funerals as a way to guide them, something to do to acknowledge that someone has died. There will be individuals for whom attending the funeral provides all the closure they need. Others will attend the funeral and also recognize occasions throughout the year to remember their loved one and process their grief. These activities help to lead a person or family or group through their grief.

Our Buddhist-specific funeral rituals help our deceased loved one have a better rebirth. Beyond that, our rituals are about taking care of the living. It might not be helping you, but it could be easing the way for the grief journeys of others around you. To some people, it is very important to know that they held the service or ceremony that their loved one would have wanted—that last way of showing love and respect.

In not having a funeral for Ed, did I deny someone the opportunity to move forward? When there is a conflict in wishes, who makes the call? I found out later that a close friend just could not accept the lack of a funeral service for Ed. He held his own private service, which, as far as I know, was for himself and possibly his wife. Initially this annoyed me, but when I think about it now, I feel differently. He did what he needed to do to attend to his own grief. I respect that. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own journey and progress. That might seem selfish, but it is not. If you are able to make the choices that make you a stronger being, you will be able to help others.

Back to the Kosala sutta

Where & however an aim is accomplished
through eulogies, chants, good sayings,
donations, & family customs,
follow them diligently there & that way.

But if you discern that your own aim
or that of others
is not gained in this way,
acquiesce [to the nature of things]
unsorrowing, with the thought:
‘What important work am I doing now?’
(AN 5.49)

What a useful question: What important work am I doing now? No matter what service you do or do not have, what are you doing to step closer to your own release from suffering. That is the important work at hand.

See more

Margaret Meloni: Death Dhamma
The Death Dhamma Podcast (Margaret Meloni)
Nakula Sutta: Nakula’s Parents (Access to Insight)

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