I went to a memorial for the son of some friends this past weekend. He was a climber and a skier, and died in his late 20s, far too soon by almost anyone’s definition of life. The memorial was wonderful, with hundreds of friends and family members attending, and more than a dozen speakers of varying relations throughout his short but impactful life: teachers, fellow students, climbing partners, mentors, friends. It was the kind of thing you’d hope your friends and family would do for you when you finally go, if you were to make that big of a mark on as many people as he did.
When we lose someone, we tell stories, we reminisce, we laugh, we cry, and we try to figure out how to come together and properly deal with the new void in our lives. It’s a deeply meaningful illustration of the saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” We say things we should have said to that person the last time we saw them or talked to them on the phone, talk about all the things we loved about them to the other people in their lives who can appreciate it, and generally come together in a big group hug that’s missing the person in the middle of the whole thing.
You probably only get a few parties in your life, and only a couple of those are very well-attended by everyone you consider important: your wedding and your funeral. The wedding is for you and your spouse, and the funeral is for everyone else. Depending on your metaphysical view of the universe, you may or may not be in attendance at your own funeral in some form. Whether you can or can’t hear the great things people say about you once you’re gone, if you’re honest, you’d have to admit that most of us are probably appreciated more at our own funerals than we are in real life.
I’ve been a Scrooge about my own birthday for a long time, saying things to my girlfriend like, “Who cares? All I did was stay alive another year.” Instead, can we celebrate this book that took me ten years to get published, or a film project I lost hours of sleep over, but another birthday? I cringe whenever people sing “Happy Birthday” to me, and cringe for anyone who bears the (in my opinion) misfortune of having it sung to them in a crowded restaurant. Why not actually say the wonderful/meaningful things we’d say at someone’s funeral on their birthday, when we’re ostensibly celebrating them? Or, just the next time we see them?
At the memorial last weekend, I thought of how great it would be to hear all the stories, memories, and tributes like the ones shared at your funeral—but while you were still alive. How much happier we all would have been if the event was a birthday party instead of a memorial. Of course that’s impossible—but couldn’t most of us do a better job of expressing gratitude for people while they’re still here? I mean, the Happy Birthday song is fun, but it doesn’t say much of anything. I don’t mean birthdays should be morbid, or ignored, but maybe a little more thoughtful.
Telling someone “happy birthday” is one thing. Saying “I love you” is obviously much better. But how often do we actually put some effort into saying something specific and authentic? Thanks for visiting me in the hospital. I admire your ability to always say the right thing. I’m grateful that you share your perspective on life with me.
In the past couple years, I’ve started to realize that I have quite a few friends who send cards to each other. Not clever birthday cards with funny messages in them, but generic cards with a few sentences handwritten on the inside: Thanks for being _______. I appreciate your ________. Glad you’re in my life.
Near the end of last year, I bought a couple dozen cards and took a few hours to send them to friends, because I wanted to be one of those people who sent heartfelt, handwritten cards. It ended up being an exercise in gratitude (on my end), and appreciation (hopefully felt by the person who received the card). I suck at remembering friends’ birthdays, but I was able to make time over the span of a couple days to remember why those friends were important to me and write them a quick note. And I don’t remember that many birthday gifts I’ve received over the years, but I have much more clear memories of those notes of appreciation from friends.
Funeral rituals have been around for as long as humans have, and they’re of course important for all of us in processing death. We have 365 days of each year of someone’s life, birthday or not, to communicate our gratitude to them, and currently dozens of avenues to do that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way we celebrate someone’s life after it’s over, but maybe we should all consider finding more ways to celebrate them while they’re still here.