This past Saturday I had the unique experience of celebrating life in two completely contrasting ways: a wake followed by a birthday party.
Obviously the party was a lot more upbeat and happy; it was a celebration. The wake was exactly how one expects a wake to be: there were a lot of hugs and flowers, and there were a lot of people crying. Yet, in their barest and most simplistic forms, they each represented the same thing.
For me to posit that mourners mourn only for themselves would be too obvious, but it’s also true. Looking at bodies in caskets always makes me uneasy while fascinating me at the same time. Let me explain that: It fascinates me to think that what I’m looking at is just a body. It’s not a person, per se. It’s not a spirit. It’s not a personality or a list of likes and dislikes. In fact, if any of us were to walk into a wake of someone we didn’t know, what we would be able to learn about the deceased would be through observation of the family and how they chose to represent their loved one. In that sense, people never really die because all the things that made them who they were are still alive in those who mourn them. Was it Slaughterhouse Five that put forth the argument that people who are dead are all alive someplace in history? Whatever it was, and wherever I read that, I found it comforting to think that, even if it goes against all logic, time is happening differently somewhere else, and those I’ve lost are there, alive as ever.
On birthdays (and days of actual birth, to be sure), we celebrate. I understand that this is a different situation in which life is coming into the world as opposed to going out of it, but it’s life all the same. We throw parties and do other things to celebrate the person with the birthday. We all come together and sing and laugh and enjoy each other’s company.
Really and truly, the only difference that I can see between a birthday party and a wake is the mood. The mourning draws the line between the two, and it would be considered tacky to turn a wake into a party. Of course it would. Death is a difficult thing, and none of us really know what happens after it. I often wonder if we, as a society, don’t just like to feel sad. There’s some sort of comfort in it sometimes. It’s natural to feel sad when someone dies, just as it’s natural to be excited to welcome new life into the world. But there has to be a way to take the sadness and focus it in a positive way that wouldn’t make us feel quite so bad about our loss. Because that’s what makes us so sad: our loss. How many people suffer in life, and would we really want to bring them back to suffer some more just to make ourselves feel better? When my grandmother died, the very first thing my grandfather said when we were done praying was “Thank God.” Clearly, he didn’t say this to be cold or heartless. He was genuinely happy for her that she had gone to a better place where she wasn’t going to suffer anymore.
It’s okay to feel sad. It’s going to happen. But I can’t help but to think that if we could measure our sadness for losing someone against our happiness at having known them, happiness would always win out. Sometimes people die too young or in awful ways, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t feel sad about that (or that we shouldn’t feel sad at all about death). I’m saying that we shouldn’t forget to celebrate the person who lived and who crossed our paths for whatever reason; to be happy that this person is in a better place and to be glad to have known him (or her). It’s not an easy thing to do – especially when we lose someone very close to us. Would it be so terrible to change our way of thinking from mourning life lost to celebrating life lived?