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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Gerety

My Quaker Funeral

I’m not sure how we got started talking about it, but one day my husband and I had a discussion about our respective memorial services. He really liked the idea of a Quaker service, which operates much like the traditional, Quaker meeting for worship. You sit in a circle and anyone who feels moved (“by the spirit”) can get up and speak, sing, or read something, for as long as they’d like. It’s organic and has little structure other than some introductory remarks and instructions. I pointed out to my husband that this format risks an eccentric uncle rambling on or old middle school teacher waxing poetic. Sounds like my worst nightmare, I told him. I wanted things more scripted, so I would know exactly when it would be over and what was expected of me; I wanted to minimize fuss and those awkward transitions. Then we realized what now seems obvious. We wanted a service that would make the surviving spouse the most comfortable. I would hold a more structured, traditional service for him, and he’d hold the loosely formatted, Quaker service for me. 

And just like that, we have an (albeit loose) plan. In the moment, it didn't feel like it, because we weren't sitting down with a list of questions or typing up a draft of our funeral program. But we had a stress-free conversation about our end-of-life wishes that was productive and ended in a tangible plan. We talked about some of the services we had experienced in our lifetimes, remembering the elements that felt meaningful and touching, those that seemed stilted or silly, and the ones that just made us angry. But most of all, we had an honest conversation that felt low-stakes, even though we both knew it was a high-stakes topic. We gave each other a road map for our funeral, as well as permission to modify those plans if needed.

I think the following best practices help when tackling end-of-life plans:

Talk with someone you trust, in an informal setting.

Talking with a trusted loved one can help you broach difficult topics. Don't pick a person who triggers you or is easily triggered by you, no matter how much you love and trust them and respect their opinion. Talk with a good, measured thought partner (that's a great definition of my husband, by the way!). Also, try not to make the setting too formal. When my husband and I talked about our services, we were in the car, which allowed for a natural flow of conversation without too much of that intense eye contact (just keep your eyes on the road!).

Start early.

You’ve heard this one before, but it's worth repeating. Have these conversations as soon as possible! It really does take the pressure off, allowing you to make decisions based on your actual preferences and personality, and not on fear. It also gives you a chance to press pause and revisit the topic if you realize you need more time or information to process your preferences.

Draw from past experience.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by these big decisions. If you think about the minutia that goes into something like a funeral or dare to look up things up online, you may put the brakes on the whole project. I recommend riffing off what you already know. You’ve likely been to a number of funerals and memorial services in your lifetime, so start there. Talk about your experiences at those services, the things that struck you (in a good or bad way), and see if you can tease out your own preferences.

Memorialize your wishes.

Don't forget to write it down and share it. Send an email, a letter, a voicemail, a text, or even a blog (yes, this post memorializes my conversation folks!), anything that captures your wishes and can be saved and reviewed by others in the future. Even if all you say is “I want something simple, please don’t overspend on flowers and the like,” you will have provided your loved ones with a sense of your preferences and expectations. When they are suddenly in charge of executing these plans, they won't be left to guess or worry whether you would disapprove or want something different. I remember my father left three copies of his funeral instructions, one that he handed to me personally many months before he died. While it felt a little over the top at the time, it was a huge relief to have when he died. We were able to hand over those instructions to the church and funeral house and focus on other matters, not the least of which was our grief.

Don’t sweat the details.

In our conversation about our preferred memorial services, my husband and I didn’t spend much time on any of the particulars. I suspect we will dive deeper on other end-of-life topics, like aging-in-place, but as to memorial services, we went as far as we were really interested in going. It reminded me of how we tackled our wedding plans. We didn’t care much about the table linens or programs (I honestly can’t remember those details, did we even have programs?). But did we spent a lot of time on our music because that detail really mattered to us, then and now. Planning for death should be the same. Spend time on the aspects that are important and speak to you, and let the default options apply to everything else.

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