Richard Smith on living funerals

Richard SmithAs we begin to assimilate the reality of assisted suicide we should also take the next step to living funerals. I’ve never been to one, but a living funeral is exactly as the name implies: the “funeral” is held while the star turn is still alive – but close to death. If the person is still far from death (although all of us all of the time are only a moment away) then it’s a party.

Although I’ve never been to a living funeral, I’ve a friend whose husband had one. They seem not to be rare in America. The living funeral happened about a week before his death. He was weak but fully conscious. Everybody came. People made the speeches they would have made at his dead funeral (as we’ll call it). His favourite music was played. Emotion ran even higher than at a dead funeral, but at the end there was joy: he was still alive, still there, could still be kissed and hugged.

His dead funeral was something of an anticlimax – shorter and with much less emotion.

My friend and her family and friends thought the living funeral a triumph. She’d been to others, but I don’t know if it’s catching on.
A living funeral would solve the problem of whether or not to go the funeral of distant friends, and in these days of global networks we have more and more distant friends. I’m thinking of x, who lives 6000 miles away. He mayn’t have long to go, although he’s not actually dying at the moment. I don’t have any immediate plans to visit him, but with my wholly positive preoccupation with death I’ve wondered if I’d go to his funeral. Would it make sense to travel 12 000 miles with all the inevitable carbon emissions to stand around his box with his wife, relatives, and friends none of whom I know well and most of whom I don’t know at all? Probably not.

But a living funeral would be different. It would justify the time, expense, and carbon emissions.
And then there are all those uncles and aunts. I think about going to see them, particularly the one in the madhouse, but I never quite make it. I do, however, tend to pitch up to their funerals, and that’s where I catch up with the remaining uncles and aunts – and the cousins who are themselves heading towards funerals (in fact several have already made it). It seems silly to put off visiting people until they are dead, and surely a living funeral would provide a greater spur than a dead funeral.

My brother [Arthur Smith, the comedian], still alive and only 54, has actually, it suddenly occurs to me, had two funerals already – so I have been to sort of living funerals. And both were tremendous fun, way better than the average party.

The first was held in a comedy club in Paris on his 50th birthday – and it was a “funeral” because he’d almost died of necrotising pancreatitis a little while before. Everybody was there, including lots of comedians and musicians, and we all did a turn. My wife was bemoaning the fact that my middle son couldn’t be there, turned round and saw he was there as a surprise, and burst into uncontrollable tears. I danced with Linda Smith, and Ronnie Golden played some rip roaring rock and roll classics.

The second funeral was the launch of his autobiography, when I met my English teacher of 40 years ago and the legendary MiniPud (the younger brother of Pud). Another wonderful night, and it occurs to me that book launches are a form of living funeral, although too often of the dreary kind.
I’ve convinced myself that living funerals are a good idea. Are you convinced?

  • Beth Kilcoyne

    Last week you wrote about how you never feel sorrow or remorse, as it’s of no use to you – really? You never feel pain at pain you’ve caused? So how do you love? This week it’s have a funeral when you’re still alive. You die 1 day of your life. On all the others, you live. That’s why it’s good to dwell on the living of it – otherwise everything morphs into a meaningless drear. A book launch and a birthday are a book launch and a birthday. At a funeral, the person is dead. The point I think is spiritual. There is no sign of the spiritual in this soulless, terse, functional approach. Go and visit those people when they’re alive then. This just says you can’t be bothered but you might ‘pitch up’ to the funeral. Dear dear me.

  • Alison Spurrier

    Richard, I have recently attended a ‘get together’ , held for a friend who is seriously ill. That friend has expressed a wish to ‘party’ ’till they drop. I therefore expect another similar ‘do’ soon. Was it fun? It was a scream………….. Havent had so much fun for ages. The individual whos’ life we were (I suppose) celebrating, sent out a txt saying ‘Thank you for a wonderful day, I should have died more often!’
    So, yes I’m firmly in favour of living funerals. No room to regret not having said or done things, which I have felt in the past.

  • martin McShane

    My son recently bought a big poster and stuck it up in his room. It is of Ghandi and the quote is:
    ‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
    Learn as if you were to live forever.’
    I would want to be with family or fiends if they were dying but right to the last are there many of us who could be so strong as to willingly accept the inevitable? I think I am a bit like Woody Allen, not scared of death, I just don’t want to be around when it happens.
    I have learnt, however, the hard way, how important it is to mark someone’s death, to gather and particpate in a ritual, a ceremony, whatever it takes to pay respects and mark their passing.

  • Susanna

    If it’s not too inconvenient, please may I change what I wrote. I did it when I was feeling a bit angry. I’d like to say:

    I found what you wrote very moving. It would take courage to agree to have a living funeral.

    Funerals are for the family, some families want them to be quite small.

    It does help to celebrate them whilst they are still here because when they’re gone, they’re gone and they can’t hear the lovely things people say about them at their funeral.

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  • Liz Wager

    Living funerals would certainly get around the perennial cliche that everybody comments that the deceased would really have loved the gathering. So, if you are brave enough to listen to your own eulogies, and family and friends are near enough, or wealthy enough, to visit you, then why not? But I reckon we shouldn’t abandon the dead funeral. It’s a useful ‘rite of passage’ and generally comforting for those left behind. And if the living funeral meant we (by which I mean we chilly West and Northern Europeans) felt we could do a bit more weeping and wailing at the dead funeral, then so much the better — stiff upper lips never did anybody any good.

  • Fancy C. Poitras

    I’m a proponent of the experience that has been dubbed the Living Funeral. While I know that many people will be uncomfortable with the concept, it works for a person like myself, who would want to go out on their own terms. It’s not macabre in my mind either, as I would prefer to make sure to have people remember that the last time they were with me, I was able to provide them with a chance for us to say goodbye.

    Another concept that seems to be gathering speed as well is the self-written obituary/eulogy. I’ve already begun mine. Have you thought whether you could do yours?

  • Richard Smith

    I wrote my obituary about nine years ago when I became a visiting professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Here’s what I wrote. The obituary follows a short introduction.

    Who the hell is Richard Smith?

    One thing I’ve discovered through editing the BMJ is that all doctors are saints. At least they are when dead. Doctors’ obituaries are tales of one triumph after another. The doctors you meet may be incompetent, egocentric, selfish, pompous, and drunk, but they are cleansed of these faults by the time they die. As an editor, this infuriates me. I’m interested in real people, not the seraphs (six winged celestial creatures, in case you don’t know) who adorn our obituary pages. But all my attempts to “get real” in the obituary pages have failed. I’m fighting a whole culture.
    So the least I can do when asked by the editor of Chariot to write about myself (what a treat for a self publicist) is to give you some warts. Indeed, I will give you an obituary of myself that I drafted as part of my lost campaign to transform obituaries. It was, of course, a cheat. Because the first thing you should know about me is that I’m not dead. (Well, not as I type this.)

    Richard Smith thought he was different, but he wasn’t. In common with a surprisingly large number of the members of the medical establishment, he thought he was a maverick. He saw himself as a radical trapped in the body of the editor of the BMJ, one of the world’s dullest medical journals. The first thing that struck you when you met Smith was that he dressed badly, used a blunt razer to shave, and probably had a blind hairdresser. His accent was “gorblimey,” an embarrassingly thin educated veneer over straight, guttural cockney. And after a few drinks the veneer was gone. He talked too fast, ate too fast (splashing it over his bad clothes), and generally acted first and thought second. His tactlessness was legendary, and he was regularly in trouble over half-baked editorials that should have been ignored but somehow touched raw nerves.
    He took the BMJ, a fine clinical journal, and turned it into a tabloid rag full of epidemiology, social bleating, debased sciences like economics, and qualitative research. Shortly before he died he went completely off the rails and became obsessed with oxymorons like peer review research and electronic publishing. He took the BMJ down an obscure creek called the Internet and thankfully it never returned. His last act was to become a visiting professor (so, finally, draining the last drop of value from that term) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There he held writing clinics, taught on being a reviewer and how to get published, encouraged research into peer review, advised on authorship, and gave a dreary lecture on meeting the information needs of health workers in the developing world. He died of overexposure and leaves a large collection of jazz records and malt whisky.