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I Admit it. I Absolutely Love Going to Funerals

How bonding with the dead gives me community, joy and life.

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illustration of tombstones in a cemetery
Elizabeth Gu
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I have always loved funerals.

I was hooked the moment I attended my grandmother’s when I was 13 — it was held at the famous and historic Frank E. Campbell The Funeral Home in Manhattan.

Saying you love funerals is a bold statement. It’s also not a very popular one and usually causes a restrained, confused facial reaction paired with a slightly disgusted expression from whomever I’m talking to. But once I explain why, people relax. They nod understandingly. Their eyes become less harsh and a slight sadness washes over their face. A sympathetic tilt of their head usually follows.

It’s because I’m an only child.

Actually, I’m the only, only child. For as many generations as I can trace, everyone in my family has had more than one child except for my parents, who could have had several but decided to have just me.

Although both of my parents had a sibling, neither was close to them. And so I was not close to them, or their children. My extended family became detached, distant relatives. Some I’ve never met. Growing up, I was left out of most family events — birthday parties and weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, holiday dinners and group vacations.

Except, of course, for funerals. That’s an open invite; everyone deserves a chance to say goodbye. Those became my family reunions.

And my fascination.

For me, it was proof of existence. The solving of a genetic puzzle. Evidence that I belong to something, to these people, to this event.

My first novel was inspired by this fixation. The Joy of Funerals centers around Nina, a lonely, single, 30-something Manhattanite who frequents strangers' funerals. She attends with the hope of bonding with the mourners to fill the deep emptiness created by her inability to connect with the people in her daily life.

The novel highlights the loneliness we can feel and the innate desire we have for real relationships — something we are losing, especially after a pandemic. Many of us have been forced into an unwanted lifestyle of solitude. Our deep ache for organic non-Zooming, non-device-driven human-to-human contact has amplified. We have been mentally, physically and emotionally starved. Much like the main character.

The novel debuted in 2003, when loss, longing and loneliness, not to mention talking about funerals and the deceased, were considered too dark, too personal, and too taboo.

Not anymore.

In revisiting this work to prepare for the novel’s 20th anniversary and the re-issue — or resurrection — I was struck by how long it took us to become conversation-comfortable about these topics. A recent article in The New York Times, “Can TikTok Revive the Dead?" focused on society's growing interest in visiting cemeteries.

Cole Imperi, a founder of the School of American Thanatology (the scientific study of death), was interviewed for this article written by Jessica Lucas. Imperi noted that the rise in graveside visits popularized on TikTok mirrored modern culture.

“Social media needs bite-sized pieces of content, and a headstone is a bite-sized story of a person, so those two things are in perfect alignment,” she said.

Funerals have now become cultural markers that have seeped into our world, the same way death and the accompanying vulnerability and grief have become accepted. They encourage emotions, to show and to share.

For us Gen Xers, we have officially crossed that undeniably, unwanted line of middle age and have moved closer to acknowledging our own mortality. We are also faced with the very real fact that our parents, too, are aging. Taking care of them is a responsibility and reality we couldn’t have imagined years ago.

Let it be said, I have never been to a funeral I wasn’t invited to. And no, I don’t think about my own funeral, though I do think about my mother’s. She’s a massive theater lover — especially shows involving icons such as Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. I fantasized about hiring impersonators to do a musical medley tribute.

When I told her about my plan, she quickly shut it down. It seems she’s dead set on having a graveside funeral, putting the kibosh on a long-winded memorial, performers, even a white dove release — not that I would have done that.

She wants something short and inexpensive. Along with an opportunity to say goodbye, funerals are a time to memorialize and honor someone’s life. For my mother, that means no podium eulogies from the friends who are still alive. No stories spewed by college roommates, her younger cousins or even me.

Surprisingly, my joy of funerals hasn’t changed over the years, even though the situations have — the passing of elderly relatives in their 90s have become expected, while friends dying from cancer, suicide or the pandemic, have not.

I cherish these powerful experiences.

Bonding with strangers under extremely emotional and intense situations through the one person we have in common is extremely nourishing; the experience is irreplicable. Because in that loss, in that grief, in this shared commonality, we have become familiar strangers coming together for the same cause. We are a unified group grieving as one. We are a thoughtfully mournful, yet celebratory, war cry built on love and loss.

And that’s the joy — joy in reconnecting. Joy in bonding with the dead. And with the living.

 
Do any of you enjoy going to funerals? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Fulfillment
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