To continue our November discussion on the ways we remember the dead, Kristen and I chatted with our friends Kristy Burmeister, Shana Hutchings, and RV Miole. Check out their bios at the end of the article.
The conversation has been edited and rearranged for clarity and flow.
We began by sharing our first experiences of death and funerals.
Mary: My first experience of a funeral was that of a nun we knew. I was about 3, and services were held at the convent–very staid and reserved. So when my grandpa died when I was 5 or 6, and we did the whole Irish Catholic thing with drinking and laughing and parties, I thought death might be kinda awesome, at least for those of us still alive. I got to stay up late, have sips of wine, swim in the hotel pool. Sweet. Then as an adult, we went to my husband’s aunt’s funeral in a southern Baptist church. It was very different; people were crying over the casket and hugging the deceased. When we first walked in I told a joke to my brother-in-law in the back, which I don’t remember but was good enough to crack myself up, and when I laughed everyone in the place turned to look at me. I thought, isn’t this supposed to be a party? It was just a different culture.
RV: I think Irish and Filipino celebrations of death must be very similar. My mother was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor when I started high school. She’s had four brain surgeries over the course of eleven years; her last one was in 2010 and recovery was difficult. She was placed on a ventilator and became septic at the convalescent home where she was recovering. She died two months before my wedding and I’m still processing the very difficult and confusing spectrum of emotions I felt that year. My experience with funerals in the family prior to that were always a mixture of grief and joy. With my mother’s, it was a feeling of unrelenting flatness, of being stuck.
Shana: My first funeral was when my grandma died very unexpectedly. She was 52. I was 16. At the wake, I remember how flat her lips looked. My uncle had the hardest time and I remember hearing him crying and talking to her and saying that he had present from Jeff, his son, and placing Jeff’s first grade picture in the casket. My uncle was a single dad and Jeff was his only son. Years later, Jeff died in a car accident at the age of 19 and I couldn’t stop thinking about that picture. Jeff was really into Motocross and snow machines, so we had a snow machine he’d been building at the funeral and we all signed it. He was buried in his motocross racing uniform and his grave has his number (20) and his helmet.
Kristen: When I was in sixth grade my Grampie died from cancer. My mama sent me and my brother to a neighbor to protect us from the wake and funeral. I wish she hadn’t, because I imagined horrid things. When my other grandfather—my Pop—died at the end of my freshman year in high school, I went to the wake and funeral, and the gathering afterwards. I talked my mama into buying me my first cup of coffee instead of going to the graveside service. (Pop was my Dad’s Father. My mom and dad were newly divorced.) So, I guess I had some unarticulated fears about death, eh? At any rate, both were Irish Catholic funerals—so equal parts keening (well, mourning, my family does not make an emotional fuss) and uproarious laughter. My Grampie’s, I’m sure, was filled with all sorts of people—he was friends with everyone from politicians to garbage collectors to bums. Oh, and my grandmothers and aunts take attendance. Showing up matters. NOT showing up really matters.
Kristy: I’ve always lived too far away to attend most funerals, but I try to do my own thing. My great-aunt was the first person to pass that I had any real memories of. We lived in different states, but we wrote letters back and forth over the years since I was about 10. She sent me a copy of our family tree when I was 16 and got me interested in genealogy. I’m the family historian now and I feel like preserving her research and continuing it is a way of honoring her.
My grandfather (my great-aunt’s brother) passed away last year on Christmas Eve. I couldn’t make it to his funeral either. On the day of his funeral, I spent the day watching old home videos he’d taken of all his kids and grandkids over the years and telling my daughters stories about him. My sister, my daughters, and I were able to make a trip down there a few months later and went to the train museum where he used to volunteer. He was locally a little “famous” for a while for his tours and the conductor’s costume he wore. I wanted to take my daughters to a place that had meant a lot to him so they could get to know him better that way.
In what other ways do we honor their memories on a regular basis?
Shana: My cousin Josh committed suicide the week of Mother’s Day in 2007. We’d always been close and his life had been so hard. When my father called to tell me, I instinctively grabbed my belly because I was newly pregnant with my first baby. He didn’t have a funeral. He died on a bridge above the Rogue River in Oregon. Josh was this guy who always called people “tools” if he thought they were too preppy or whatever. He had this great sense of humor, so when I randomly discovered a Rogue River Brewing Company beer called Dead Guy Ale, I knew I had to incorporate that into my yearly remembrance of his life, so I always have some on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. It just fits his personality.
RV: Shana, food is such an important way for me to remember my mom. In the Philippines, you’d take food to the cemetery on All Souls and eat it there, inviting your dead family members to eat with you. So I made her favorite recipes this past year, lit some incense and candles, and had dinner with her on All Souls’.
Mary: I’ve tried to say daily rosaries for my parents since they died (my mom this last March, dad the July before that). I could almost feel my dad standing next to me at daily mass one morning (I don’t go often). The priest gave a one-sentence homily that dad would have approved of, and during communion he gave me two hosts. It gave me the chills. Then one time between their deaths I was eating chocolate covered cherries alone in the house (my dad’s favorite) and I could have sworn I heard a mattress creak followed by footsteps upstairs. I know it was the house settling, or squirrels or something, but it made me smile.
Shana: My grandma had this clock in her house and the night of her funeral, NO JOKE, the whistling changed from the clock’s normal sound to her whistling. Josh and I were sitting on the couch and said, at the same time, “Holy shit!”
Kristen: Twice since my Dad, Sir died 8 years ago, I have smelled the smoke of Marlboro cigarettes (he chained smoked them for my/his entire life). Eerie.
Kristy: It’s important to me that I document and preserve our family’s history. It’s sort of like a never-ending memorial. When I learn something new about one of my ancestors, I understand them a little better, and I understand my living family and myself a little better.
Kristen: Beautiful. I, too, see a connection between “place” and “person”–geography matters.
How large a role does heritage play in honoring our dead?
Mary: Our heritage has been questioned, and I don’t really know what it is now. I feel like I’ve lost a crucial way to relate to those I’ve lost, and those I never knew. Anyone experience that?
Kristen: I have not had that experience, exactly. However, I have had the experience where the mythology of my family history was finally revealed as that–mythology. It took a while for me to get past “the lies!” Now, I fully embrace the family stories for the beautiful narrative that they are.
Kristy: I moved around constantly while growing up, so I don’t have a hometown and I’ve mostly been absent from my extended family. Being part of some larger group was always important to me, so I really latched onto my Irish heritage when I was younger. Supposedly, we were mostly Irish. Turns out, we’re not. But when I found that out, I also discovered an entire Cajun branch of my tree I didn’t know anything about. Now I have about a billion cousins. It bums me out sometimes that I was so invested in an identity that isn’t really mine, but even if I don’t belong there I do belong somewhere. (But we won’t talk about how boringly English I turned out to be, though.)
Kristen: Similarly, this summer, when I went to Guernsey (to bury his mum’s ashes), and my stepdad shared HIS stories with me, it was the first time in our 33-year history together that he treated me like one of his own children. He’s never been bad to me, but I was 19 and out on my own when he met my mama. So, he was never a father figure to me. From the get-go, he was Grampie to my children, and his mother was a grandmother to me, and a great-grandmother to my kids. We called her Nan. As she was dying, I think he was deeply moved by how we treated her. So, that trip to Guernsey was his way of grafting me into his family history. It was an astonishing experience. Now, none of his family (he has 3 half-siblings and a bunch of nieces and nephews through them) is “mine,” but they have become mine.
Kristy: One other thing is there’s family ethnicity and then there’s family tradition. If my family started doing something before me, that’s still part of our tradition, even if it’s not technically part of my ethnic makeup.
Kristen: Kristy, what you said about traditions–that completely sums up how I can now embrace the B.S. family stories. It’s TRADITION that one of the aunts or cousins tell the story of my grandfather’s escape from Belfast on July 4th during The Troubles. The story is largely folk tale. It’s OUR folktale, though. So we keep telling it, even though we now know it’s not his actual story.
RV: So over the past two years, my purely academic interest in animism and indigenous Filipino folk beliefs and practices has transformed into something that’s resonated with me as actual spiritual practice. In particular, the indigenous Filipino concept of kapwa, meaning ‘togetherness’ is essentially an animist outlook. I’ve seen others translate it as ‘fellow-being’ or seeing ‘the-Self-in-the-Other’ and it has important implications for how I view death. The sense of interconnectedness whereby other people are not truly Other but part of what one is means that each time you memorialize their death, you deepen your understanding of yourself.
May their memory be a blessing.
Kristy Burmeister is the author of Act Normal: Memoir of a Stumbling Block and blogs at Way Station in the Wilderness on Patheos.
Shana Hutchings lives and writes with her family in Des Moines, Iowa where she enjoys reading, baking, and walking alone.
RV Miole is a first-generation immigrant and operating room nurse in the SF Bay Area. He’s a bit obsessed with animism and indigenous folk practices, or so the spirits tell him.