We should all be so lucky as Miss Ruby.
The former doyenne of a famous Bourbon Street burlesque club, the aged stripper now resides in a seedy, second-floor room of a once-glamorous hotel. Dying of an unspecified illness and heavily medicated, she announces that she wants to attend her funeral to hear all the nice things people will say about her. So Miss Ruby’s friends put on their brightest wigs, fanciest clothes and gaudiest beads and prepare to throw a big, splashy bash to honor their beloved matriarch.
That’s part of the plot in Airline Highway, playwright Lisa D’Amour’s touching tribute to families made up of friends.
What inspired the idea of a living funeral? “It was a confluence of events. My mother-in-law used to joke that she wanted a living funeral,” D’Amour says. Plus, there’s the tradition of the New Orleans jazz funeral, parading the departed to the next life. “Growing up in New Orleans, we talk about people who have passed very actively. The idea didn’t seem that far-fetched,” notes D’Amour.
One friend said she would follow a concert-style format, with musical selections that complement her life in the performing arts.
Sure enough, shortly after D’Amour started writing Airline Highway, she began seeing emails about people actually holding pre-death funerals.
And why not?
“Each of us is just a moment. We all deserve to be celebrated,” D’Amour says.
The Living Funeral Trend
Believe it or not, some funeral homes are addressing this growing trend. The Funeral Services Guide website offers ideas for “celebrating the life of a loved one before death,” complete with bulleted tips on organizing such events.
The site spells out the advantages of such an event, such as “paying tribute face-to-face with the person who is approaching demise, clarifying practical issues relating to the will, gaining closure on emotional baggage, sharing fond memories and anecdotes.”
But, warned the planners, there could be a downside: A living funeral places a huge emotional burden on the participants.
Would You Want a Living Funeral?
A sentiment often heard at funerals is: What a wonderful party it was — too bad the dearly departed couldn’t attend. But would you want to go to your own funeral?
I asked a few of my friends in various settings and heard mixed responses to this informal poll. (Share your vote on the Next Avenue poll at the bottom of this post).
Some were up for the idea of a celebratory party. One friend said she would follow a concert-style format, with musical selections that complement her life in the performing arts. “I would like folks to speak, and joke and tell stories about me,” she said. “Or first impressions of me.”
Others felt this type of party was too self-centered.
“We do live in an age of ‘me,’” said my friend Paul. “Can’t we even die and let others have their say?”
My friend Richard agreed: “Absolutely not. A bit too narcissistic for me.”
But then I heard from someone who favored the plan, not from an egotistical need to hear accolades, but for a very kind and considerate reason — to make it easier on loved ones.
“It could become a consideration if, knowing that death was imminent, it would allow for family and friends to pay respects in a planned for and scheduled date, which could lessen the costs and complications of last minute travel and arrangements,” she said. She didn’t want to burden people with sudden airfares and disruption.
Some questioned how truthful friends could be in such a situation: “I guess I am rather dull,” my pal Michael confessed, “but I prefer to attend my funeral after I am dead. I would pick the music, readings, and eulogist. I fear if I were alive at my funeral, I might not recognize the person being praised.”
Others were skeptical about why you’d want a big party if you were close to the end — assuming the living funeral would happen when death was imminent.
Said one: “I would rather spend my last days in solitude or with a dear friend, providing my condition wasn’t dire and I didn’t have a lot of pain. I mean, when would be the appropriate time for a living funeral anyway? Anytime? When one is very old? What would happen if one had a living funeral but then lived another 10 years?”
How many living funerals do we get?
There is also the tendency of funerals, like weddings, to bring out the worst in people. That certainly played out in D’Amour’s piece. At Miss Ruby’s event, as people got drunker, the party careened progressively more out of control, secrets were spilled and confidences betrayed. And yet, all the while, Miss Ruby was honored with heartfelt testimonials — from people she no longer recognized.