Put Some Life into Funerals! (Sending Loved Ones Off with a Bang)

Saying you want to try to make funerals fun sounds like a bad joke. However, seeing the occasion as a celebration of life instead of a somber affair makes sense.
making funerals fun; celebration of life

Diana McLellan’s funeral was quite the bash. There was champagne and plump strawberries dipped in chocolate, baklava coiled like escargot and topped with crumbled pistachio. The bartenders were busy at the tables set under the trees at Washington DC’s Congressional Cemetery. The sun shone brilliantly on a polished crowd of local glitterati, family, and so many friends.

The grande dame of gossip columnists and authors, a Brit of fabulous cleverness and style, and one of the city’s great characters was laid to unorthodox rest in 2013 on a bed of lavender, wrapped in a glorious saffron-colored silk shroud that peeked through the intricately woven wicker basket that served as her coffin for the “green” funeral she had carefully planned in her last days.

Crammed into the tiny chapel at Congressional Cemetery, it was hot. No one cared. Paper fans were deployed to supplement the ceiling fan’s whir. Her daughter, designer Fiona Newell Weeks, conducted a ceremony both moving and amusing. Family, friends, and neighbors spoke, topping each other with anecdotes.

Then the mourners, or celebrants, whichever, trailed to the grave site behind a funeral director so handsome one suspected she vetted his appearance: Bring on the candidates Fiona darling, one imagines her saying, propped up against downy pillows in a lacy peignoir.

The casket rested on brass rails, topped with an elegant spray of white flowers, but refused to descend. “She doesn’t want to leave us yet,” the director said gravely.

Guests were told they could toss dirt onto the lid — at which her son-in-law said with a twinkle: “She tossed around enough dirt in her lifetime.”

Woman's bicycle with flowers

The guests headed to lunch at Mr. Henry’s tavern, her favorite haunt, where Diana’s fat-tired bike stood in state in the window, the glass patched with photos of Diana with Raquel Welch, Joan Rivers, Ronald Reagan, and Princess Diana. There were snaps of her bandaged head, illustrating a piece about her highly public, rather hair-raising facelift — a Washingtonian Magazine feature. It was tax deductible.

This was a far cry from my mother’s funeral, led by a rabbi she scarcely knew, and he knew even less about her. That was forty years ago, and I still remember it with a cringe. The droning prayers, the oddly impersonal speechifying. Thankfully, we had lunch in her Upper East Side of Manhattan apartment, with its commanding view of the city from her 18th-floor terrace. Our guests grew tipsy, loving memories shared – riding a motorcycle behind neighbor Michael, growing marijuana in her south-facing window for her young friends Astrid and Bud, trying to buy a “hot” TV off the back of a truck. And her cooking! Oh my….her cooking.

Soon the laughter began to outweigh the tears. It should have been joyous from the start. She’d had a happy life, it could have been longer, but it was mighty full, and she was greatly loved. But what did we know then? Unconventional funerals were just not done.

If weddings no longer require a minister. Why should funerals?

When my friend Gary passed away in 2016, lucky him to miss covid, among other horrors, his funeral was held at the Capitol Lounge, his favorite local bar. We toasted his ashes.

Toasting at a pub or bar

There was endless pizza and an open bar, and anyone that wandered in was welcome to join the party. (And you thought Capitol Hill was so stuffy, didn’t you).

Lisa, his granddaughter, played her keyboard and sang. Of course, there were speeches, most of them amusing. Of course, there were tears; he was much loved.

But this was personal. This was Gary. Warm, generous, and always spreading his enjoyment of life to those around him. Why would we sit in a chapel for a service with only a tenuous link to the man? If prayers were said, they were in our hearts.

His wife, Maggie, is still struggling with what to do with his ashes, which sit on a bookshelf. He might no longer be the life of the party, but he’s still in its midst. She’s considered adding him to an artificial reef; he was an avid diver. Or maybe a lamp base. Possibly sprinkled into jewelry or (really) a tattoo. Those last require so little of him that she still has a large dilemma. Or maybe shooting him into space, he’d like that, she thinks, but the cost is prohibitive.

Ah! But there are always fireworks.


My friend Kathleen and I were propped up at a bar the other night. She’d just come from a Russian Orthodox funeral with a lot of standing and listening to the priest chant for hours. I asked her if she’d been to a funeral she enjoyed. Yes, she said, my sister Christine’s.

When Christine died last year after a long battle with cancer, her funeral was held in Baltimore, where she lived with her family. They chose the historic Belvedere Hotel for the occasion, in a venue rather bravely called The 13th Floor. The grand Art Deco lounge on the hotel’s top level is surrounded by windows with panoramic city views. Caterers were called in, and the food and wine flowed. It was a celebration of her life, with a slide show of photos and memories shared.

It snowed that day, so we couldn’t make it from D.C. – though, as Kathleen gently pointed out, friends from Minnesota had no such problem.

Christine wanted and planned to have her ashes packed into fireworks for a smashingly illegal finale. Planned for this summer, the location is, understandably, hush-hush. But we’re assured the setting is beautiful. Chris had a hand in the proceedings, approving the planning and selecting the playlist; her husband and son played guitars, and everyone sang the last song…

I’ll Fly Away….

We didn’t need to be told the playlist for my sister Jeanie who died this past January. It had to be Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, the music of her life.

Jeanie had been ill for a few years, continuing to surprise us with resurrection after resurrection. Far older than my sister Bonnie and I, a half-sister, though that rarely occurred to us, her 90th birthday party was in September. It was held in the pool house of her Juno Beach, Florida condo, a gorgeous setting with palm trees swaying, the ocean twinkling in the background, and lots of food, music, and dancing. She was dancing.

Just a few short months later, her funeral was not much different than her birthday party, though Jeanie’s absence left a massive void.

No member of the ministry presided; there was feasting on trays of cold cuts and cheeses and shrimp from a fancy deli. Frankie and Dean and Sammy Davis Jr were programmed on our friend Lee’s cool music system. There was dancing, masses of balloons (she loved balloons), and lots of tributes.

Pastrami dripped from the diamonds of well-upholstered matrons, accompanied by their inexplicably slim husbands. Children skittered about, swiping shrimp.

Jeanie made friends everywhere, and they all wanted to say goodbye. Damon, her health insurance adviser, arrived with a huge orchid; Donna, her aide, put in her teeth; Angel, her fix-it man, came late.

Gosha, her Polish cleaning woman, brought white balloons and, after a largely incomprehensible but moving speech, released them to float out over the ocean. Not the best idea when Jeanie’s charity of choice was the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, which protects turtles from death by balloon, among other things. But it’s the thought.

There was laughter; there were tears; she would have loved it.

When a person has had a full and wonderful life, shouldn’t that be celebrated with toasts and cheer? Yes, they died, and so will we all. It does not dishonor a loved one to remember them with pleasure. As for me, I’m thinking about a destination funeral at a tropical beach.  Crosby Stills and Nash – Wooden Ships, then kick it up with Bob Marley. Margaritas and a vat of guacamole.

Leave them laughing.



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