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Celebrating and honouring loved ones after death

26 September 2022
A photograph of balloons with 'happy birthday' printed on them.

Working in the deathcare industry can challenge many preconceptions about what should be done after somebody passes away.

This article from SMCT employee Leah Mandletort poses a question - are there other ways to honour a loved one?

In life, we celebrate milestone events and happy occasions. 18th birthdays, fortieths, a centenary. That is our societal norm and what we’ve grown to understand as acceptable and appropriate behaviour. Yet, it seems uncommon practice, perhaps insensitive to celebrate and honour a milestone of a loved one who has passed.

The more I work in deathcare, the more I feel challenged and question why. Why do we stop celebrating or acknowledging milestone events once a death has occurred? Why are life and death isolated as two separate entities, when they complement each other like day and night? You cannot have one exclusively without the other.

Challenging our fear of death

The fear or anxiety of death is a normal part of human experience. For many of us, thinking about death can evoke fears of separation, loss, pain, suffering and anxiety about leaving those we left behind. What if we challenge our fear of death to instead evoke feelings of connection, belonging, warmth and reassurance to those who we may see again?

Working in deathcare, we have a more compassionate lens on the topic. We understand that our cemeteries are for the living as much as they are for the loved ones in our care. Everyone has vastly universal and different experiences with death, much like they do in life. We have ceremonies to celebrate and honour the lives of our loved ones yet, beyond a funeral, it seems foreign to celebrate and honour a milestone of someone who passed. This circles back to my initial question - why?

What if we challenged societal norms? What if continued celebrating our loved one’s milestones beyond their death?

Celebrating a loved one beyond a funeral

A close friend of mine shared that she attended her boyfriend’s brother’s fortieth birthday celebrations. The brother had passed away a couple of years earlier. The mother, who organised the celebration, invited the brother’s closest friends and family. They catered the event, had food and wine, and delivered speeches. Some attendees initially felt weird and uncomfortable, but it was ‘exactly what he would’ve wanted’ and people warmed to the celebration and enjoyed themselves.

I left that conversation thinking, how beautiful! Why does death need to be perceived as the finality? In Mexican culture, Dias de Muerte (day of the dead) is a celebration where people in the ‘land of the living’ celebrate loved ones in the ‘land of the dead’. The Disney film Coco explains that a real death occurs when people in the ‘land of the living’ forget a loved one in the ‘land of the dead’ – focussing on the importance of celebrating and honouring loved ones, sharing memories and keeping their spirit alive, never forgetting them.

If you are someone who feels uncomfortable about death and dying, know that you are not alone. We have many wonderful staff and resources at the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, including the Centre for Care and Wellbeing if you need support.

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