This summer I decided to hold a second funeral for my mother who died on September the 5th, 1999. When I asked my family if they would join me for this unusual ceremony, they all said yes and I was immediately terrified about what strangeness I had willed forth into my life. The ceremony took place over the weekend of the 26-27th September 2015, sixteen years after she died. That was over 2 weeks ago from now and I am still witnessing the unravelling processes that emerged from this extraordinary event: emotional shifts, unexpected disruptions and painful revisiting of old family dynamics.
Why did I hold a second funeral? My conscious intentions for this ceremony were to gather my family, honour and remember my mother with the creativity and love that I was not able to, or invited to bring to her first funeral. I was 19 when she died and my main contribution to her funeral was to go with my dad to the undertakers; a surreal, disconnected, secretive and unsatisfying experience. We chose the least shiny of a range of coffins that resembled veneer cabinets from the 80’s. When I tried to find out what was going to be done to her body ( I remember being very concerned about garish lipstick and painted faces I’d seen in American films…), I received vagueness masked in an awkward performance of respect for our loss. I still don’t know to this day if she was embalmed or not as I was too frightened to go and see her laid out in the coffin. Sixteen years later I am in the process of an informal training to become a radical undertaker and one of my intentions for this second funeral was that it would be a rehearsal for the funerals I would like to professionally facilitate for bereaved families and communities.
When preparations began, murkier unconscious intentions started to reveal themselves. They weren’t nearly so pretty. One of them was a furious desire to break through everything I found suffocating in my family culture. I had an overriding urge to burn and smash things that represented the frustration I had grown up with. I decided that an essential part of this memorial process was to get rid of much of my mother’s lingering paperwork and sheet music that was still gathering dust in my family home. I said to myself I was doing this to help my dad de-clutter so he could move forward with his life, but it turned out I mostly wanted to vent a terrifying fury. The process of sorting through the stuff with my siblings sent me straight back into childhood family dynamics along with intense feelings of rage and powerlessness. We had some clashes, still unresolved, leaving me with a lingering apprehension about my Father, the owner of a lot of stuff, dying at some point in the future. The unconscious force that seemed to be shouting the loudest was the need to be seen and heard and this compelled me towards some rather clumsy communications and actions. I am sorry for the hurt they may have caused and equally grateful for the illumination they brought me. This piece of writing is an attempt to honour this need to be heard without, I hope, causing any further pain.
Creating this ceremony forced me to be honest with myself about my fantasies of creating a ritual in which my family would miraculously get over their social conditioning, unzip themselves and step into a wild, emotional freedom. Having spent many years being obsessed with rituals and taking part in events such as such as the Beltane Fire ritual in Edinburgh and the Dagara tribe 2 day grief Ritual with Sobonfu Somé, my idea of a really cathartic ceremony would involve beating of breasts, wailing, drumming, fire and strange music. A sort or rave that, if you knew my family, would be the most inappropriate and excruciating experience imaginable. I eventually realised that these fantasies were a distraction from the reality: this ceremony was going to be much harder and far more real than many exciting, theatrical and exotic group rituals I have been to.
I can honestly say I tried my utmost to hold a ceremony trod the line between my needs and those of family (most of which will remain unknown to me). One of my guides was a beautifully simple and unintimidating boat ceremony that I had been shown by John Fox and Sue Gill (the founders of Dead Good Guides) earlier this year. I began the process by learning basket-weaving in order to create a willow ‘coffin-ship’. This was a very satisfying craft to learn – a mixture of assertiveness and gentle care needed to keep the shape emerging evenly. The base of the ship was pre-made for me as my coffin-ship turned out to be a year-3-of-an-apprenticeship level basket that I was attempting as my second ever go at weaving. We completed the ship as a family by adding sails, rope decking, flowers and flags with messages for my mother. My nieces asked what their grandmother liked and painted a baguette and a seascape flag for her heavenward bark. My dad sketched an image of two young lovers walking towards a mountain, which was the unexpected grief-trigger for me. Just thinking about it now still makes me tearful. We built a large funeral pyre in the garden to burn the coffin-ship along with as much of my mother’s paperwork as I could get my hands on. The other big project was to rehearse and sing a gorgeous, romantic harmony arrangement of the Ivor Novello song Shine Through my Dreams. This was my resolute choice that I had completely underestimated the difficulty of. My Godmother Sue, a professional singer and close friend of my mother, generously stepped in as musical director. My nephew and niece had flute and guitar parts written for them and the result sounded rather good. My mother was a professional musician, so for me, taking responsibility for choosing the music and singing it was perhaps the most cathartic and liberating part of the whole event. I also wrote and read out a eulogy and we prepared and ate a feast of my mother’s favourite food with the idea of the siblings bringing one dish each. I produced an irreversible chocolate mousse disaster. Luckily my sister in law, glad of the excuse not to have to sing, came to the rescue as we rehearsed.
The weekend was hard work. As the organiser, I was acutely aware of how much avoiding each other’s presence we were capable of, but I was equally moved by how supportive and willing my family were to follow my summoning. We worked on shared tasks with a united purpose and succeeded in making the ceremony truly beautiful. There was also palpable rage under the surface and some of us expressed it in frightening outbursts. I told my story of being my mother’s daughter, complete with hilarious episodes and the difficult and sad parts of our relationship, which felt empowering. There were moments of gentle appreciation for each other too, especially from my sister-in-law whom I had struggled to accept into our family when I was a teenager. I don’t know yet what the ultimate outcome of all of this was, but I believe all rituals initiate a change that happens on many levels. It starts with the symbolic and once it enters into our psyches we cannot reverse back to the selves we were before the ritual took place.
As I write this, I am experiencing a revisiting of grief, with all the same emotional and physical symptoms I had 16 years ago. Like the Ivor Novello and the coffin-ship, I completely underestimated the extent of how this would hit me. I harboured a secret hope that this event might be the thing that finally nails it, finally ‘cures’ me of the sadness that has been nagging at me for years. But of course the more you try and escape your demons, the stronger they become…so this time round, I am choosing a different tactic. I am going out of my way to befriend grief. In some respects, this ceremony was elaborate welcoming, a magical ritual to manifest and invite a visitation from a guest that is usually so unwelcome in our society. But this is not comfortable in any way. It is challenging everything in my life, especially relationships and work. And yet I just know I have to do it. There are tears that need to flow.
The most significant lesson I learned from this whole process was that I am able to grieve because of the support around me: the companionship of a loving, understanding partner, supportive friends who champion me and the inner resources gained from therapy and a strong connection to nature. I am also developing the courage to ask for and seek out the support I need. I didn’t have any of this when my mother actually died and therefore my grieving process was mostly suppressed, an experience that is so common in our society that I think we all accept it as utterly normal. But is there another way possible? Can we support each other just a little bit more, allowing a little more of those tears that give us the release we long for?