Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Selfies at a Funeral - not so bad

Angel at Waterford Cemetery - St. John's, NL
Ok, I heard a piece on a Q podcast the other day about the "Selfies at Funerals" issue. At first I thought, yeah, that's a bit much. But then I recalled my 17 year old self's reaction to the first death and funeral I experienced. My grandmother had a stroke and I found her collapsed on her bedroom floor when I got home from school one day. She died later that night at the hospital.

Then, because my family is Irish, there was a 3 day long 'viewing' arranged at a local funeral home. Family members from all over arrived in town including my Irish Aunt who I'd never met before. There was a Wake / party at our place one night where everyone drank a lot, my Irish Aunt taught us how to do a jig, an Italian friend of my Mom's was reading people's palms, and my Mom herself was singing and goofing around with her siblings in a way I'd never seen before. People were catching up with one another and lots of them were talking, laughing, and crying while telling stories about my Nan. It was quite confusing cause I thought death and funerals were supposed to be sombre, quiet, dignified events--which it was when we were at the funeral home.

The first night of the 'vigil' / 'visitation' at the funeral home I arrived late. Drama was occurring between my friend and her boyfriend at our apartment and I sent Mom on her way while I stayed behind to deal with it. Seriously?! Didn't they realize MY grandmother was DEAD!? So, I threatened to call the cops on the boyfriend and then escorted my girlfriend downstairs and into a cab. Back in the apartment I looked again in the mirror at the new me. For some reason my response to Nanny's death was to go out and get all my hair cut off. I think I'd read somewhere that it was a sign of grief to have 'your tresses shorn.'  I called another cab and headed for the funeral home. There I  was met at the door by my Mom. She walked me in and asked me if I wanted to hang up my coat first or see Nanny. SEE Nanny?!! No one told me anything about SEEING Nanny.

I looked around and saw two open doorways. Through one was a large room full of people milling about and talking in hushed tones. The smaller room looked virtually empty. I guessed that was where I would SEE Nanny so indicated that I would do that first. But instead of heading towards the small room my Mom proceeded to walk me into the large room and through the crowd towards the open casket which contained my grandmother.

Now I was a girl who liked dark things but I'd never seen a dead body before. I had no idea what I was supposed to do or say. Do I cry? I didn't feel like crying. I wasn't really sure what I was feeling except nervous and a bit creeped out. "Can I touch her?" I asked my Mom. She nodded and I reached out and timidly touched her hand. It was cold, cold, cold and felt almost solid. And she looked so different from the last time I'd seen her collapsed on the floor. I mean she looked 'nice' and much younger--she was even wearing makeup!!--but it wasn't really Nanny.

I don't remember what my mother said to me then or what I did but the next 3 days were just weird. It felt a bit like time had stopped. Or we had stepped out of time. Every night I openly drank alcohol in front of family members and no one stopped me. I even smoked cigarettes in front of them for the first time and no one said anything! Everyone was acting in a way I'd never experienced before and didn't quite understand.

Then, on the 2nd night at the funeral home I did something (one of two transgressions) that made an Uncle turn almost purple with rage. I took the opportunity to announce to all gathered there that despite the sad occasion I wanted to point out that it was my Mother's birthday. And I just wanted to say Happy Birthday. I mean how sucky is that? Having to spend your birthday at your own Mom's funeral?! Why was that wrong?

Grand Duchess Anastasia Selfie - 1910
So, maybe I do understand the selfies at funerals. In Western society death and funerals are not something we are educated about. We have to learn by trial and error what sort of behaviour is expected or appropriate. And sometimes people's expectations of what that is are not the same so trying to make sense of it all is complicated. And on top of that you might not be sure about what you're feeling or if it's even ok to not really know. Most teens will turn to their peers to share experiences even when those experiences are out of the ordinary. Maybe even more so. And social media is how most young people, in North America anyway, connect with their friends. It's unfortunate for them that it's a form of communication that is open to the rest of World.

I'm just incredibly grateful that social media was not part of my teen years. God knows what I would have done to further upset that Uncle!

Further Reading:

Selfies at Serious Places (BBC)
Why it's OK to mourn on social media (Sydney Herald)
Mortician Challenges our view of Death (CBC - Q blog)


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