From Melanie Reid in THE TIMES, 9 June 2018:
A friend I hadn’t seen for a while stopped to chat. He had a dilemma, he confessed. His wife’s friend’s husband had died, and his wife wanted him to go to the funeral. But the date was when he was away on a four-day trip he had organised for friends. He was genuinely conflicted. What to do?
I love funeral conundrums: they’re like a brain astringent, flushing out the fluff, forcing us to make the right decision. Our own personalised episode of Moral Maze. Where we test the concept of Doing The Right Thing. Weigh up how much we care about the deceased; balancing how much offence our absence might cause the bereaved versus the inconvenience it’s going to cause us or others.
The art of the funeral should be minimalist, light-touch and perfected with age. When you’re young, it’s hopefully something you have to do very rarely. But from middle age onwards, as you settle into a community, and as your friendship group gets older, more opportunities inevitably arise (I hope you don’t think I’m being morbid here; it’s very life-affirming to discuss these things) and that’s when, unless you’re an unabashed professional funeral-goer, you do start to become more choosy.
I was never keen even when I could walk. By making mistakes, and going to funerals for the wrong reason (I fancied one of his closest friends), I learnt a little bit about myself. Emotionally untouched at another funeral of a work colleague, I realised I was just people-watching; enjoying the cameos and the tensions; a spectator intruding upon the private moments of a stranger’s family. I felt ashamed. It reminded me of being sent to state funerals as a journalist, when the press are the outsiders at the back with the surreptitious notebooks, craning to identify people, jotting down brief impressions while everyone else prays.
Pretty soon – I suspect it was after the frenzy of Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, when I was suddenly sickened to find myself agonising merely over my turn of phrase and my deadline, while two young boys were agonising publicly over the loss of their mother – I set myself ground rules for my personal life. In future, I had to really love or respect the deceased, or be very close to their family, to turn out. Otherwise, I just send a note. End of.
Rule 1: when you hear of someone’s death, your instinct tells you everything. Your decision should be immediate. If you swither for a second whether or not to attend, that person is not important enough to you. Send a note.
Rule 2: if you do care, move heaven, earth and medical appointments. One of my real heartbreaks was when someone I loved and respected greatly died. I wanted desperately to be there. But the funeral was at 10am 70 miles away; my catheter had to be changed that morning. I still regret not being there.
Rule 3: ask yourself what the deceased would say. If you know they’d roll their eyes and say, “I’m dead, for Christ’s sake. I don’t care,” then stay home.
Rule 4: if torn between duty to the dead or inconveniencing the living, always go with the living. In the case of the opening dilemma, I advised my friend to go on his trip and enjoy it.
Rule 5: the best rule of all. Don’t wait until people die. Make the effort to go and see family, old friends and acquaintances while they’re still alive. Hug them, tell them things you’ve always wanted to tell them, say you love them. That’s a million times more important than turning up when they’ve gone.
Melanie Reid is tetraplegic after breaking her neck and back in a riding accident in April 2010