Grieving is a process, not unlike six degrees of separation. You’re familiar with the concept, I’m sure. Any individual can be traced to any other individual using a series of people in common, be they friends, work associates, family members, or whatnot. When someone dies you find out who is really in that circle, that framework of reference that surrounds you whether you know it or not. Now that I think about it, it’s also like Dante’s circles of hell in that each circle brings you closer and closer to something you don’t want to deal with — death. To that end, there are five degrees of grief that inform your actions at a funeral.
Obviously immediate family members represent that first degree of grief. When they die you’re at least expected to be there, to hold each others’ hands, to cry on command, simply put, to FEEL something. Perhaps you will read the eulogy, many sympathy cards make their way into your possession, maybe you take sole possession of the prayer lists of many of the elderly at your synagogue. Whatever is expected of you, nothing is unexpected. You can be your most dramatic when an immediate family member dies because anything less would be a shocking scar on your family image. In that first level, you need to re-familiarize yourself with the Josh Groban and the Sarah Brightman music you usually despise. It was you who picked it out for the service.
“Even if you didn’t know Great Aunt Hester all that well, she was still kin and her immediate family will need that money in the near future. Funerals are expensive.”
The second degree consists of extended family. Maybe you saw them once a year, or once in the last ten years, but you’re still needed as a family member to pick up the pieces when the mourning begins. In this second degree you are expected to fly out to West Omaha on a moment’s notice (or hopefully you’ve had time to prepare — flights can be wicked expensive), still participate in the hand-holding and tissue-handing, but more importantly, you’re needed for after-funeral duty. After-funeral duty is the cataloging of the meat loafs, the pumpkin pies, and the condolence gifts people have sent. You are of course surprised the first time you deal with this second degree of grieving because you had no idea how many people send monetary gifts to help the family out in their time of need. A lesser person would pocket some of this money but you don’t. Even if you didn’t know Great Aunt Hester all that well, she was still kin and her immediate family will need that money in the near future. Funerals are expensive.
In the third degree of grieving we have coworkers, former coworkers, people you used to go to school with but have since lost touch (i.e. the obligatory facebook adds), friends of family members (Uncle Jed who was never really your uncle), and former teachers. While you might have had some personal connection with these people in the past, they no longer hold that special place in your heart they might have held before. Maybe you’ve spoken to them once in the past ten years. Perhaps you sent them a Christmas card every year because that’s what you felt was expected, plus they always sent you one first so you felt like you would have been remiss not to reciprocate. Whatever the case, you had drifted apart, but you feel beholden to the memories you shared to show up to the funeral. If it’s on a Friday night you’re golden and don’t have to take time off work. If it’s on a weeknight you don’t feel as obligated but you definitely still send a condolence card (with money inside). There’s no need to kill the fatted calf, though, because if you don’t show up to this funeral you won’t be missed. No one will be looking for you to hold their hands or stock their food. They have first and second degree grievers to do that for them.
The fourth degree is even further out. This degree is specifically for supporters. Some people are friends of people who’ve lost those close to them. Your husband lost his step-father so you are a plus-one at his funeral. It’s kind of like being a plus-one at a wedding, though, because while he’s expected to express his emotion, you are just there to show that he still has other people in his life who care for him. You can even smile at this funeral because you’re a sign that life goes on after death. It may even be a good experience for you so that when you become that second or first degree griever you’ve already seen how it’s done. Your husband will appreciate you for coming and his family will remember that when inviting people to barbecues and picnics in the future. You will be at the top of the list.
“They come with a morbid fascination about death, and their curiosity needs to be sated.”
Most people don’t even realize that there is a fifth degree, and indeed, it’s hard to distinguish it from the fourth. However, there are people who fit this category exclusively, because while they haven’t lost anyone close to them, they are always keenly aware of loss. They’re the elderly who frequent funerals, who schedule them like they schedule dentist appointments. They know it won’t be pleasant but they know they should go. They cry the loudest, stay the longest, and accompany the family to the burial plot. If it were possible, they would also lower the casket into the ground while quietly singing “Kumbaya” in unison. They thank god that it wasn’t them this time and hope that the next funeral isn’t one where others will be singing “Kumbaya” about them. Just like the fourth degree, these people want to see how it’s done. They come with a morbid fascination about death, and their curiosity needs to be sated. Usually the first and second degree grievers don’t mind them being there, even though they don’t fit the other categories, because it makes the funeral seem well-attended and we all know everyone’s keeping track of numbers.
So, you see, funerals are not as simple as you may have seen on Six Feet Under. They are complicated, but once you understand which degree you fit into, they can become a lot more manageable, and a lot more interesting.