I've planned two funerals before planning my wedding. The first was my own funeral. My cancer came before we had a chance to speak of marriage, and preparing for the worst outcome took priority. As I eventually went into remission, we got engaged and started hoping for the best outcome — we still are. And then, out of the blue, my father died an early and sudden death. He left no wishes for his funeral, and that task fell to my sisters and me. It was not unlike planning a wedding (albeit in four days flat), and I've learned these lessons on how to celebrate life — whether this is a life that has gone or is about to start.
Details can distract from the real issues
Yes, there are decisions to make about fabric, colours, and flowers, even at a funeral. People would rather have arguments about the exact colour of personalized wine glass charms than admit that they are overwhelmed and are struggling to adjust to the new life situation. Take time to remind yourself why you are doing all this planning and only add details that are meaningful and do not cause additional stress.
Scrap “save the dates”
The people who can and want to be there will be there, because you are important to them. There will always be someone who won't be able to make it, but if they want to they can find ways of being part of the day in other ways — heartfelt cards, letters, emails, and thoughtful presents can mean as much as actually attending.
Be ruthless with your guest list
Funerals — like weddings — are intimate moments set in time, the ending and beginning of something new, and the laying bare of one's emotions publicly. The people who witness this moment will either enhance or tarnish your memories of a day that cannot be repeated. Only invite people you feel absolutely comfortable with, so you can be yourself and can cry your heart out if you need to.
Let guests be adults
There was no time to make cute signs to the toilet or make games to keep everyone amused. The kids played football in the garden of the venue. People talked, drank and ate, laughed and joked between tears. People who had not seen each other for years reconnected. It was calm and joyful, a celebration of life, and a wedding will be the same, even if we don't manage to make a single cute signpost for the day.
Delegate and ask for specific help
People who feel strongly about someone will want to get involved to help create a meaningful day for them. Be clear about what you need help with, and ask the right people and politely, but clearly, decline other offers of help. Being clear from the start prevents unwittingly offending and disappointing others in what is already an emotionally charged situation.
No matter what society expects, set the tone in keeping with the life of the person you are celebrating
My father was an informal person, so we had very few “formalities” on the day. My sisters and I wrote him the funny 70th birthday speech he will never get to hear, and people laughed and left the church smiling, even though it was a funeral.
Guests tend to stick to what they know
Unless you specify that everyone must turn up in fluorescent pink, guests will automatically choose to wear what they feel is appropriate for the occasion. We didn't really want black, but everyone else chose this in the absence of any specific instructions. Similarly, we asked for donations and no flowers, but some people still brought wreaths. It was just their way of showing their love and consideration, and it did not matter what they wore or brought.
Do it together as a team
Recognise what each other's strengths are and assign tasks accordingly. My sisters and I formed a stronger bond than before (despite the occasional argument) because we had a common goal and could each contribute in ways that we felt comfortable with.
It is only one day
That one day is not worth stressing over or ruining relationships over. That one day did not define my father's life, and our one wedding day will not define our marriage. What will define us is how we live after this day, how we redefine ourselves despite losing or gaining family members, and how we love each other and those around us. Which brings me neatly to the last point…
Sentimentality is very different from love
Sentimentality looks backwards, love looks forwards. My father was a sentimental and kind but very childish and dominant man, and it was challenging to have an adult relationship with him. When he died, he had not spoken to me for several months. He would not have come to our wedding. Even though my father had deep sentiments for me as “his little girl,” it was not a love that accepted my independence, my divorce, my cancer, and a new man in my life. My father's life choices have served to show me what I have found in my husband-to-be — an unconditional love that is stronger than anything we have already faced together, a love that will carry us through all our days, come what may.
Yes, I will feel sentimental that my father will not be there at our wedding. I will smile to myself and thank him that I inherited my “offbeatness” from him. But most of all, I will remind myself that life is a very precious and fragile thing, and that all that matters on that day — and on every day — is loving someone truly for who they are, no matter what.