Grandma’s Passing: A Humanist Funeral

Back at the beginning of April my Grandma De died. It was expected; she was ill and had achieved a respectable 83 years of life. I had actually spent a week down in Southern Illinois with her and my family two weeks prior because everyone, including her, knew that she was…

cue five minutes of typing and deleting and typing not trying to write poetry or be trite or robotic or grotesquely blunt and finally settling on

…dying. She was dying. And on April 3, 2016 she died at home in her sleep with my aunt by her side and her dog, Buddy, sleeping at her feet.

When my Dad died I was a mess. I felt hopeless and helpless. I was living and working in Minnesota while he was dying eight hours away in home hospice with my mother caring for him on her own.

cue unanticipated crying break

aaaand we’re back.

I came home for his funeral, but I could do nothing but grieve – which is a nice way of saying I stood around alternating between feeling numb, guilty, angry and fornlorn. It was my Dad, and he was too young, and he was gone. I was a mess on the ride home. I was a mess at the visitation, at the funeral, and during all of the in between times. I was a mess on the trip back to Minnesota, and for quite a while afterwards.

For many reasons I felt much more at peace with my Grandma’s passing and funeral. I have memories of her that were formed over family holidays and celebrations – and they are good and plentiful. But they are the simple, uncomplicated feelings of a granddaughter for a grandma who never lived closer than six hours from us. This was a woman who almost always put on her happy face for me. A woman who sent checks at Christmas and birthdays and gave hugs at parties and kisses at weddings. I know that she was so much more complex than that – and I enjoyed seeing glimpses of this more nuanced woman as I grew older – but the distance affords a bit of a buffer. I can consider her passing and think “Thanks for all the good times. I hope you had a good run, Grandma.”

Don’t get me wrong – there have been tears and grieving. But acceptance felt a little easier this time around.

I was the celebrant for my Grandma’s funeral. My Catholic Grandma apparently didn’t care to have a Catholic funeral, and her children run the gamut of spiritualities and religions. So in mid-March when my mom and aunt were sitting around the kitchen table discussing the likely soon-to-be funeral, I volunteered. My aunt was surprised to hear that I was a celebrant. I told her that as a Humanist celebrant I would strive to ensure that Grandma’s beliefs, as well as all of our beliefs, would be respected, and that we could work together to make sure that they got a funeral service that worked for the whole family. Long story short, they said yes. More importantly, Grandma said yes.

I arranged a service that didn’t deny (or support) the existence of a soul or afterlife. I filled it with readings by Robert Ingersoll and other poetry that celebrated a life well lived. I worked with the amazingly wonderful Bailey Funeral Home to finalize the order of service, to make sure the right music got into the right spots, to arrange the printed materials, and to organize donations to Grandma’s chosen charity, the Southern Poverty Law Center (hell yeah, Grandma!).

Much of the family had a role in the funeral. Each of Grandma’s four kids were present and spoke, told stories or performed short readings. One of my cousins arranged the music. And so many people pitched in to handle all of the little details and logistics. My paternal aunt and uncle put us up at their home and drove us around. Grandma’s friends brought food. Her friend, Rosemary, gave a wonderfully happy and spirited eulogy. After the funeral we had a short graveside service that consisted of my mom reading a letter that had arrived for Grandma after she passed away, with the author fully aware that it might arrive when it did (oh, the tears!), a brief Bible reading from the practicing Catholic son, and this reading by Samuel Butler:

I fall asleep in the full and certain hope
That my slumber shall not be broken;
And that, though I be all-forgetting,
Yet shall I not be all-forgotten,
But continue that life in the thoughts and deeds
Of those I have loved.

It was good. I found joy in learning more about Grandma so that I could pay per a proper tribute on the day of the funeral. I had the honor of helping to ensure that my family felt that they had a chance to pay her a proper tribute.

I love you Grandma.

A portrait of Grandma De in her 50s

Betty Deleonardo
November 6, 1932 – April 3, 2016

I chose this for the printed program. It’s hard to go wrong with Ingersoll.

Mystery of Life
Before the sublime mystery of life and spirit,
the mystery of infinite space
and endless time, we stand in reverent awe…
This much we know:
we are at least one phase of the immortality of life.
The mighty stream of life slows on, and, in this mighty stream,
we too flow on…
not lost…but each eternally significant.
For this I feel: The spirit never betrays the person
who trusts it.
Physical life may be defeated but life goes on;
character survives,
goodness lives and love is immortal.
– Robert G. Ingersoll

Grandma’s Passing: A Humanist Funeral
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