A Personal Death - The little details

    Tomorrow is my grandfathers funeral.  If you read yesterdays post then you know that by now I'm in Brisbane to help prepare for the event.  We arrived at the airport just before lunch, checked into our bead and breakfast and then headed over to meet up with my uncle and aunt at my grandmothers for lunch.  There were so many things I had never seen organised or being finalised.  I have been on many funerals and only ever seen these things in their final and finished stage.  So this was a fascinating and very informative.  Overall it was a fairly nice day, but it was not without issues.

    My grandmother has dementia, bad enough that the doctors have determined she is no-longer mentally competent to sign legal documents, yet she is not completely lost.  She has a bad understanding of time, thinking of a quick moment as an eternity and then thinking of a long time as just a second.  She has no issue with the idea that she went skydiving with my grandfather yesterday and will go to his funeral tomorrow.  Naturally everyone wants to keep talk of the funeral to a minimum around her, when she stresses her dementia gets worse.  Plus it obviously upsets her as she really cared for her husband.

    At one stage about 5 of us gathered to the side and quietly discussed tomorrow.  Basically when and what was happening.  My cousin was concerned about the weight of the coffin as we would be carrying it.  I told her about how there won't be far to go or much weight, at the foot end everything is rather light.  This is because well over half of our weight is above our waist, from the waist down there is very little weight.  The coffin itself should only be about 20kg and he was losing weight towards the end (as he was unable to eat or drink) os he wouldn't weigh much more than that.  Knowing this really comforted her and she was happier about the idea of carrying.

    I think most people are nervous about carrying a coffin if they've never done it before, as with most new things.  There is a lot of anticipation and pressure, you're up there, infront of people and carrying something, no, someone who is very important to them.  To drop the coffin, trip or just mess up would be terrible.  I remember this from the first couple of times I carried, the nervousness I felt.  But everything went fine and stories of dropped coffins are so very rare.  There are plenty of close calls where a handel has come off or someone trips as they are walking with the coffin.  However in every case they or someone else saves the coffin.  The most common time a coffin is dropped is when it's being lowered, not carried.  Yet that's another story as it's not what we are doing on this funeral.

    Something that I had never thought about and is very important is the orders of service.  Someone has to print them, or organise them to be printed.  In this instance my aunt printed them off (and did a good job) then brought them over for us to fold.  It was almost strange how much emphasis and importance these booklets had.  They were only one A4 page folded in half and yet a lot of work and effort had gone into them.  My aunt was so concerned with the wording that she had been tempted to reprint all 100 just to change a few words which nobody else noticed.  My other family were then so attentive to folding the booklets, making sure each and every fold was straight and sharp.

    I'd never thought much of the orders of service (or mass booklets) before today.  I mean, they have always been very important to me.  I knew how the family love getting a few extra to sent to "those who were unable to make it" to the funeral as I use to say.  The order of service was always an important tool on the funeral as it gave an idea of how long things would take, what was to happen (and when) and where the family was going back to if I was driving them.  I also knew how people loved to get one, that it was such an important part of the funeral, like a pice of the service that they could take home and literally hold onto.  So the order of service was always important to me, but not in the same way as I now see it.  I saw how much effort and attention was put into this single A4 page and how much it meant to everyone.

    It is a actually a physical piece of the funeral that people can hold and keep.  A piece that the family can directly make and shape.  They see little impact of their decisions until the day.  For example they pick the coffin, where the funeral is and so on.  Yet none of these things are seen or happen until the day.  To pick a coffin out of a book does not feel like much of a decision or that important.  All they did was talk of prices and pick a picture from a book.  We put more effort into buying a TV and inspect it before buying it.  It is not until the funeral that most people will actually see the coffin or the other decisions they made.

    Even then many of the more important choices are invisible to families.  They make quite important decisions and yet never ever see the result or progress of these choices.  For example how many see or know about how the body makes it to the funeral home.  Another and more relatable example is clothing. Families often put a fair bit of thought into what the deceased should wear or have in the coffin.  Then in many of these cases they never see inside the coffin.  They do not see the deceased wearing the clothes, holding what they are meant to and so on.  This creates a tension, to make important emotional decisions then be totally divorced from the results has a dehumanising effect which makes the whole thing a little unreal.  To be separated from the outcome of our emotional decisions reduces the importance and reality of these decisions.

    The order of service is a wonderful way to counter all this.  It is a product families can see as it's being made; how it's being made, when it's completed and so on.  It is something they can put emotion into and personalise, such as including photos and dates of the deceased.  And it is something they can actively participate in, from designing it to printing it or even just folding copies.  It is something they can 'create' and make.  It then becomes so much more than just a 'booklet', it is a physical piece of the funeral and the deceased.  What lead me to realise this was the way my grandmother held the first test copy, she held it with longing care.  A sad smile slid slowly over her and she looked over the book for a while before handing it back.  It was not just as book but a bit of her husband, one of the very last bits and a bit of his funeral yet to come.

    Now I realise the significance of the order of service and will do a post dedicated to it another time.  Things to include and avoid, it's significance and how this simple bit of paper might very well be an unsung tool to deal with the death of a loved one.  It makes me wonder what other little details actually hold more significance than I realise.  Things like the food I had always thought of as vital are treated as trivial while the other supposedly mundane and unimportant are treated as crucial.

    All is set and we are just waiting for the funeral now.  And 'waiting' is the perfect word, I notice the family are basically counting down the time.  Time has become more important, 10 tomorrow morning now has more meaning and significance than it did yesterday morning.  They wait and I wait, it will be a long night for some and a short night for others.  But I think everyone will remember tonight.


Another strange realisation has just crept into my mind as I finish up the post.  Both in this post and in earlier conversations I refer to my grandfather in his coffin as "the coffin", just as I would at a funeral as an undertaker.  I talk of him in the coffin no different to any other dead person who I'd never met on a funeral I had no personal attachment to.  While strange, and arguably impersonal, I do not know any other way to refer to it or him.  He is "the coffin" to me once the lid is on.  And I realise that others also referred to "the coffin", but did they learn this from me?

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