Q: I have been concerned for some time about whether a funeral -- memorial service, graveside, whatever -- is for the living or the dead, and about who should dictate the form, style or size of such ceremonies.
My grandfather is quite old, and in discussing his wishes with my mother and me (his only relatives), he said he wants family only, with a stark few words said over his grave -- nothing more.
He is widely known and respected and has a large number of friends all over the country, of all ages. They surely would be disappointed at not being allowed to pay their respects.
And Mother and I feel that we would like to have some sort of ceremony to honor Grandpa and express our gratitude and love for him. However, he is a man of simple tastes and is vehement about not wanting fuss.
In discussing our desires for last rites, my husband and I have come to feel that funeral ceremonies are held for the living, to help them cope with the loss of a loved one, and should be whatever the bereaved feel is helpful and appropriate.
What is the best way to handle this question?
We do not wish to show disregard or disrespect for the wishes of a departed loved one, but since he would be dead, couldn't we choose how to mark his departure? -- S.E.M., Maryland
A: From earliest history, human beings have marked the deaths of their loved ones with ceremonies and other rituals. Often, there are religious reasons for certain practices -- to ease the soul's entry into another world, for example.
But whether it is the stated reason or not, providing comfort to the living is always an important factor in the rituals surrounding death.
Death is mysterious, awesome and really, just plain scary.
When we lose a loved one, we need the strength and comfort that comes from gathering other people around us. We also feel the need to pay tribute to a life that was important to us, and to express our gratitude for that person's contributions to our own lives.
That is reason enough for you to want to mark your grandfather's death with some kind of ceremony. But "ceremony" doesn't have to mean "fuss."
There are a number of ways to satisfy your own needs that may even fit your grandfather's notions of decorum. Perhaps your grandfather is offended by the flowers, fancy caskets, limousines and other accompaniments of many American funerals. But those are frills, not essentials, and it should be possible for you to find a funeral director or clergyperson who will help you arrange a simple ceremony.
Your grandfather indicated that he prefers a simple graveside service with only the family present. One possibility would be to hold a brief ceremony for the family at burial, then schedule a memorial service for a later time.
Since your grandfather has friends in far-flung places, a later memorial service may be more convenient for people who would want to come.
You're right. Death ceremonies are for the living. That is not to say that they should be planned in flagrant disregard of the wishes of the deceased. But in this case, I think you can in good conscience find a balance between your grandfather's desire for simplicity and lack of fuss and your own need to pay tribute to his life.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.