UPDATED 14Aug2020: Have you ever noticed that the more important a topic is, the less likely people are to talk about it? It’s not that the weather doesn’t matter, nor that the economy is irrelevant. Sports talk is a pretty popular thing for some people, and who can pass up the chance to rant about government or masks or COVID? But as important as these topics are (or seem to be at the time), they do have their limits. The weather will change tomorrow. If the economy is bad today, it will probably get better in a few years. If today’s government has broken our trust, the new guys in power next time will probably discover a different way to disappoint us, too. I find myself reminded of how limited our day to day conversations can be when I head into our nearest small town, a place called Gore Bay, Ontario, to do some shopping. It’s not unusual to find what they call a “funeral card” next to the cash register. Sometimes there are two.
Funeral cards announce the death of someone and the time and date of their upcoming funeral. These cards always include details about a person’s life, too. I’ve never seen funeral cards in cities, probably because there’d be too many cards to fit on the counter. And even if all the cards could fit, no one would know most of the people anyway. But life is different in the very rural place of western Manitoulin Island, Canada, where I live. There are only 2500 people living in our entire area and we’ve got real community here. Funeral cards are one small thing I’m thankful for, mostly because they get me thinking.
My local auto repair shop has been in their current location since 2015, and they’ve collected and kept all the funeral cards that have been dropped off there since then. Even in a little place like ours the pile is bigger than you might think. You can see the pile below.
Three Kinds of Funeral Cards
Small town funeral cards fit into one of three categories: people you didn’t know and have never heard of; people you didn’t know well, but are familiar with; and people you knew well and will miss. The longer you live in a little place like mine, the more funeral cards fit into that last and most meaningful category. But regardless of your connection to people on funeral cards, and the lives they lived, one thing is absolutely certain. Every last person whose name is on a funeral card is now “on the other side”.
What exactly this means is probably the least talked about topic of all, and that doesn’t surprise me since it’s arguably the most important one. You can be friends with someone for years, you can see them working closer and closer to getting a funeral card of their own, and somehow never work up the courage to talk about the biggest questions of all. What is death? What, if anything, lays on the other side of a funeral card? Why do we believe what we do about this big topic? What is life really all about, anyway?
A friend of mine is a pastor who has been part of something called “Death Cafe”. It supposed to be a safe space where people can meet and talk about the very private topic of death and dying. The idea is that the conversations will get down to real discussion of this serious topic, but something strange almost always happens instead, I’m told. Virtually without exception, the deepest people are willing to go is discussing funeral arrangements, funeral homes, wills and the mechanics of what has to happen after they die. Almost no one asks the really big question about what happens after you die, and how this might affect how you live.
I don’t see big questions like these as depressing or somber, but it’s understandable if you do. Death may be the biggest taboo subject of all because, one way or another, it means the end of life as we know it. And unknowns can be scary because they might not be good. But if you think about it, the end of something isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on what kind of beginning “the end” turns into. Most of us looked forward to the end of each school year as a kid because we knew the joys of a summer away from book work and a desk. The end of a road trip is a good thing if we know and love the place we’re traveling towards. I’ve come to understand that there are solid reasons to take an optimistic view of the end of a life lived well, and that’s what I aim to get you thinking about over the next little while.
This is the first of a series of stories that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but haven’t had the courage to publish recently. I’m taking a chance with them because they cover ground that rarely gets air time. Most of us are shy when it comes to the big issues behind life and death and funeral cards, and that includes me. But avoiding all risk is never the best way to live. That’s why you’ll find me taking chances and getting honest about life and death from time to time here at BaileyLineRoad.com. I’ll be sharing what I’ve discovered to be true so far based on experience, evidence and observation. I offer these as suggestions and conversation starters. Perhaps you’ll discover that you and I have been thinking about the same things in the same ways. Then again, you might shake your head and figure I’ve been living at the end of a dead end road too long. Either way, join me here again. I’ll do my best to get you talking and thinking about more than just weather, sports, politics, choosing a casket or how a will works.
Click to read the next instalment: “How Did It All Happen?”