I recently chatted with a friend who’d just returned from her grandmother’s memorial service in California. My friend’s “Grandma” sounded as if she was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting: a sweet old lady, kind-hearted, always ready with a hug or a wise piece of advice. Grandma had been in great health at Christmas a few months back, but took a fall about two weeks after, and died not too long after that. It was that quick. Her two children (one of them being my friend’s mom), figuring it would be inconvenient for the extended family to gather immediately, decided to cremate Grandma as soon as possible and hold a memorial service a few weeks later.
This is not an uncommon set of circumstances. Grandma was quite elderly, and although they all knew her time was coming, the sudden end was still unexpected. No one, other than the very few family members still living in California, had a chance to say goodbye. My friend flew back home for the memorial service hoping for that opportunity – to share one final goodbye with her grandmother whom she loved dearly. But, that hope went unfulfilled. While she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, being at the memorial service, staring at an eight-by-ten photo and a small box, her Grandma’s death just didn’t feel real to her. Something was amiss. Then it hit her. Grandma wasn’t there.
People don’t always understand it until they’ve experienced it for themselves, but there is a tangible difference between a funeral and a memorial service, other than the fact that the deceased is physically at one and not the other. Between the two services, the tone is different. The conversations are different. The way people behave is different. When the deceased is physically there, people tend to speak more quietly, there is a feeling of respect and reverence, and frequently, a profound sadness. There are always, always, more tears at a funeral. At the same time, there is always a heightened sense of community and togetherness. Saying goodbye is sad, and difficult, but it truly is the first step in the healing process.