My dad put the 'fun' in funeral
And taught me how to live life.
Since I was a kid, my dad would tell me that he wanted a party when he died. He’d mention it in lots of little ways over the years, most often when he’d hear a song he loved on the radio.
“Play this song at my funeral, kiddo,” he’d say, as we rode in his tiny red pickup truck. “Um ok, dad,” I’d mumble in reply, unsure what I was supposed to say to something like that.
Over the years, the number of songs grew. “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead. “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Heaven” by Los Lonely Boys. “When My Train Rolls In,” by Gary Clark Jr. He’d sporadically mention them to me, my mom, or my brother, Rory. The list was diverse and wide-ranging, a reflection of my pops’ musical and artistic interests, and his overall approach to life.
Tomorrow marks five years since my father died. He was admitted to ICU on a Sunday, got transferred to hospice the following Tuesday, and took his last breath early that Friday. He was 58 years old.
The days in ICU were disorienting and maddening, as dad’s condition and the news from doctors only seemed to get worse. There was nothing comforting about the bright fluorescent lights, the constant beeping of machines, and the claustrophobic room that wasn’t big enough for us all.
My father mostly slipped in and out of consciousness, but whenever he did wake up, he’d say what we were all thinking. “This room is the same color. It’s all beige,” he said, gazing at the drab curtains covering the glass door. “It’s so depressing,” he added with a chuckle before falling back asleep.
The days in hospice, by comparison, were strangely peaceful. Dad was undoubtedly going to die soon, which meant all we could do was focus on our last days together. We hung tie-dyed prints from the ceiling and on the walls, something non-beige to focus on whenever he opened his eyes, and we quietly played music, a welcome respite from the incessant beeping of the ICU.
We did these things for dad, but they ultimately became gestures for us. Before long, we started compiling the playlist of songs that he’d mentioned over the years. We spent hours remembering songs and listening to them, stopping to share the stories they reminded us of. Those hours listening to music in hospice were incredibly precious. My pops understood that funerals were meant to comfort the living, and with every song request he made, he made sure that my brother, mom and I knew that too.
Dad’s funeral was pretty typical; his funeral after-party was anything but.
Friends, family, coworkers and former students gathered to eat, drink, reminisce and dance. There was a tie-dyed cake with his personal mantra — “If you don’t love everyone, it doesn’t count.” We marched through the streets in a ragtag second-line parade. And the playlist of pops’ favorite songs played all night long. It was bittersweet, but surprisingly fun.
I am so grateful that dad regularly shared what he wanted for his funeral. It made planning the event much less depressing and much more special. It gave Rory, mom and I some direction when we were feeling incredibly lost. It helped us all to feel closer to him.
I may not have known how to respond to my father’s funeral song requests over the years, but those conversations stuck with me. Hearing his views on why a life should be celebrated, instead of a death mourned, helped me navigate the ups and downs of grief and face future devastating losses.
My pops taught me a lot of things over the years. Maybe his best lesson was that death is a great reason to keep on living.
Good job, brain
I'm (still) reading: Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult.
I’m currently inspired by: My mom. She’s navigated widowhood, maintained faith and gratitude, and created a new life for herself in such an incredible way over the past five years. She’s pretty awesome.
I'm currently aiming to: Honor my pops in a way he’d appreciate. I’ll be with my family tomorrow, and we’ll leave a big and generous tip at a restaurant in his memory. He’d love that.
For your sweet dumb brain
What do you want for your funeral? Do you want it to feel somber or celebratory, or a mix of both? Do you want to be cremated or buried? How do you want to be remembered? These questions are hard, I know, but they’re important to think about and to share with the people we love most. We never know when we’ll die, but we can share what we want after the inevitable happens.