Let's Talk About Dying 2: Families Fracturing Around Funerals Featured

By Helena Dolny

Published by City Press  7 July 2013

Let's Talk About Dying 2: Families Fracturing Around Funerals

Qunu or Mvezo? The Mandela family’s disagreement will be settled in court. Most of us try for privacy, “No washing of dirty linen in public”.  As a nation we’d prefer our beloved icon’s slow fading away to be bathed in dignity, but we are witness to a public family spat.

Families fracturing around funerals? It’s not uncommon. “Jo told her, ‘Philippa, we will always be sisters but we will never be friends.’. . Inside me I know this opportunity has long been lost. The family will dissolve after the funeral.”  ‘Before we say goodbye.’ Penguin 2012. Sean Davison. UWC professor writes of his traumatic experience of his mother’s death.

Watching our loved ones die: some of us do, some of us don’t. Maybe it’s an accident and you are called to the mortuary to identify the body. Whatever the cause of death, there are numerous practical arrangements to be made: death certificates, notifying banks, contacting undertakers, letting people know, choosing a coffin, coffin open/coffin closed, deciding if, who, how many people might speak, and food, food, and more food. All of this, when you may feel in a state of shock, bruised and dazed.  Add in sleeping badly for a few nights and what’s probable is that we’re not at our best. It’s hard for us to do our best thinking and yet the occasion calls for fast decision-making.

Is there any way we could make it easier? How many of us have written out exactly what should happen when we die? We need to help each other to work out things in advance, and write it down, precisely. Most of us shy away from this. 

Case in point -my late husband, Joe Slovo. We were into the last week of his life. He still hadn’t written a will, and this was his fourth year of cancer. It’s not as though death was being sprung on him unexpectedly.  It was hard for him to dictate a will; he behaved as though it were his death warrant. His mind was clear; his hands were shaky. The bank delayed recognizing the will because of the shaky signature. It could have been easier.

And then what about the funeral?  When you’re a public figure, you are public property. As family you accept that some choices get taken over, but there may be certain things that you would like to be respected? Again Joe and I talked at my insistence. I knew ANC and SACP officials would organize the funeral and that personal requests needed to be specific. Joe’s wish for no ostentation, a simple pine coffin was helpful.

But should we always implement the wishes of the deceased? Months ago I sipped tea with veteran activist Phyllis Naidoo, “Aunt Phil”. We talked about what she wanted to happen once she died. I favoured a vigil as happened with her son Sadhan the evening before his burial in Lusaka. People sat quietly; occasionally someone got up to share their thoughts. The inclusivity was wonderful. Aunt Phil, however, spoke of a friend who had the speediest and simplest of funerals, and that’s what she wanted, “No fuss; no bother”. We ended up debating, ‘Who is the funeral for?’ - for the person who just died, or the persons left behind?  I lobbied for the living. Funerals, at their best, help us on our journey of grief towards healing and acceptance.

Aunt Phil died in hospital, without a Living Will in place, without having written down her wishes. She was an atheist. Her memorial took place in an Anglican church with a Eucharist service. Her ashes were scattered at sea mingled with those of her late husband MD Naidoo. Her family worked out what was most satisfying and supportive to them.

Several recent deaths offamily and close friends have left me gob-smacked at just how many landmines detonate at this most difficult time. Family histories, second marriages bring their complications. Cremation or burial? Who sits where at the service? Is there a difference if the couple have been together twenty years but never married? What’s the expected order of walking behind the coffin? What will happen to the ashes, where and when? What should be the wording on the tombstone or plaque? “In loving memory” versus “In memory” becomes hours of debate. Is there an order of service and guide to symbolism that helps those who are not of that denomination? A Jewish ceremony I attended was like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. Non-Jewish people may not know that the phrase “Long life” is offered to the deceased’s family members. During Aunt’s Phil’s service people didn’t know when to stand, to sit, to kneel. A delicate moment, in a recent Muslim ceremony of one of our stalwarts was inappropriately interrupted by the arrival of political dignitaries; somebody in the West Wing didn’t do their homework.

We live in a diverse society. We want to honour the dead and support the living. We need a multi-cultural, multi denominational checklist to help us behave more sensitively.

But most of all we each need to be ready with our own specifics. The Marikana 34, the 21 killed in the bakkie-truck crash in North West last weekend were in the full flow of life. Death is also an equalizer. Money and fame don’t protect you from death’s choice of timing. James Gandolfini a.k.a. Tony from Sopranos died suddenly on holiday aged 51.

If we seriously want to make it easier for those left behind, to help them navigate differences, then the kindest thing to do is the hard thing. We need to write down with as many details as possible what should happen: place of burial, service details, property disposal .Gisele Wulfson, renowned SA photographer, apparently wrote out her funeral service while in hospice. Many of us draft our wedding vows; why not giveour exit the same attention?

Once you’ve drafted, you might want to revisit. Over time we change. My husband, John Perlman, had instructions that asked for music from the Red Corvettes, and the tombstone inscription, “Back in 5 minutes”. I understand there’s an update!


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