#2: How To Behave At A Funeral

As funerals go, it was probably one of the loveliest. Mum (with her Alzheimer’s and all) couldn’t be bothered with the usual stiff protocol of hushed whispers, soldier stances and polite smiles. She was dancing, singing and “yoopeedoing” all over the shop and I do believe my Aunty Rita, Mum’s sister, wouldn’t haven’t wanted it any other way. Indeed one of mine and my brother’s fondest memories of our dear aunt is that of her own arrival at that very same Middlesbrough crematorium, for Nana Jessie’s funeral a few years earlier. As we waited in expectant silence, prepped to receive grandma’s coffin from the back of the hearse, we suddenly found ourselves battling asphyxiating laughter upon clocking Aunty Rita’s entrance. Fashionably late, we watched mesmerised as she trotted across the car park, dressed in a fantastically ferocious funeral outfit with bright sunlight shining through her recently coiffed beehive, highlighting a definite purple glow to her new black updo. The stark contrast of the desperately sombre occasion combined with Aunty Rita’s fabulously non-conformist energy set us off in fits of giggles. Of course, we as adults knew how we should behave at a funeral, but the more we tried to hold those giggles in, the more intensely they poured out of us. And at the time, we felt terrible about it.

I’ve been doing a great deal of self reflection and introspection of late, common I suppose with so much death around and trying to make sense of these messy, complicated lives we lead. In doing so, I have discovered what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called, my Shadow Self. Jung theorised that our unconscious minds are fragmented into different “selves” in an attempt to organise how we experience different events in life, in this case, a funeral. Two of these “selves” he named The Persona and The Shadow Self. The Persona, derived from the Latin word meaning “mask”, defines how we believe we should act and how we wish to be seen by the world. Conversely, the Shadow Self forms part of the unconscious mind and is often described as the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos and the unknown. This Shadow Self is composed of repressed ideas, instincts, impulses, weaknesses, desires, perversions and embarrassing fears. Jung believed that these untapped dispositions are present in all of us, in many instances forming a strong source of creative energy – in my funeral situation, fits of nervous laughter – and the more we try to deny and repress them, the more strongly they attach within us.

My experience of Aunty Rita’s funeral last week was thus very different to that of our dear Nana’s a few years earlier. Indeed as Mum stood in front of her own sister’s coffin having a tug of war with my father as she attempted to eat the freshly cut yellow rose meant for the top, many more giggles arose within all of us. In fact we spent the whole day laughing and singing with Mum, even throughout the most serious parts of the ceremony. But this time we didn’t try so hard to suppress these seemingly inappropriate emotions. We weren’t laughing at Mum’s incapacity to recognise a rose or indeed the significance of the day. Simply the entire situation was so mad, death so painfully permanent and Alzheimer’s so bloody cruel, we have learned to accept and even welcome a little light heartedness to the seriousness of life. We spent Aunty Rita’s funeral in tears of both laughter and pain, love and loss, and it’s one of the most honest, beautiful, connecting funerals I have attended. No pretending. No rules. Just allowing ourselves to feel exactly how we felt, appropriate or otherwise, led by our beautiful mother’s example and happily accepted by Aunty Rita’s warm hearted step-family. No longer ashamed of her shadow self, Mum gave us all permission to laugh, cry, sing, weep, dance and yooopeeedooo without any fear of how we should behave at a funeral. As a family, Mum’s illness has led us all a little closer to our shadow selves, enabling us to feel more whole in our crazy, messy humanness. And that alone, shows there are some small positives to be taken from the crappy disease that is Alzheimer’s.