Okay, so this post title may sound unconceivable… (how can grief possibly be any fun?) But this weekend I met a character dealing with grief the best way I’ve seen in some time.
The experience began around midday when I hid my tired eyes behind dark shades and headed off to visit my lover. AKA my barista. After whipping my caffeine fix into a take-away cup I cradled lovingly in my hands, I almost ran into a skeleton. Yes, that’s right. A life size carboard cut out tied onto a pole with tinsel. Glued to the ribcage of the figure of bones was the address hosting a garage sale. My handbag was heavy with spare change after buying copious coffee this week, and thought it was about time I bought a second hand book anyhow. So, off I went. Sparkles, skeletons and coffee – I had a feeling it would be a great afternoon.
I followed the arrows tied to street signs like Dorothy following the yellow brick road until the large house on the hill appeared, decorated with more skeletons and a giant skull on the letterbox. I checked the date on my mobile phone – was it Halloween already? From the distance I could see a towering book case and I could already smell dusty second-hand pages in my mind. I dived out of my car and headed up the driveway. The host was a vibrant middle-aged man dressed in a skeleton onesie. His face was beaming with a smile and he offered his customers sausage sizzle and soft drinks. Looking around at the price tags attached to items, I imagined it would have cost him more to set all of this up than what he’d make in sales.
‘Check it out!’ he trilled, holding up a plastic skull to an elderly lady who winced and backed away. I laughed out loud and he looked at me over the tables of preloved DVDS and crock pots. Our eyes met, and we connected. It didn’t take long until we were chatting about books, movies and death.
‘So, are you moving?’ I asked, sipping my complimentary cola.
‘Well actually, my partner died,’ he pointed towards the skeletons and skulls. ‘It’s the reason for the theme. It’s mostly his stuff. He’d laugh. Oh, some of it is my dad’s too. He died a few years ago.’
‘So, all of this…?’ I gasped.
‘Yes,’ he smiled. ‘Hey, do you like plants? There’s heaps for sale around the corner!’
‘No, I always kill them.’
‘Me too!’ he laughed.
And right there, I made friends with a stranger in the depths of grief but spending his day giving to others.
This wasn’t just any garage sale, by the way. The bookshelves were bulging with classics – I bought an entire collection of Charles Dickens novels, The Diary of Andy Warhol and the original Watership Down. I was in heaven. It wasn’t just the books and movies exciting me, it was the soul of this beautiful man. As more people wandered in, buying a thing here and there for a dollar, he skipped about in his skeleton costume making everyone’s day. His energy was contagious. He was simply lovely.
I tell you this tale about the happy chap dressed as a skeleton with rosy cheeks offering sandwiches to strangers, because I believe his lesson is important. He lost his life partner of 35 years only a few months ago. He had been his hero, teacher, lover, best friend. I knew this man was crying inside, but his way of dealing with this giant loss in his life was to help others and smile, smile, smile.
A lover of literature, history and classic tales, I knew this garage sale was worth a fortune. I bought as much as I could afford. I wouldn’t be able to buy coffee the following week but this man deserved every dollar.
‘Thank you,’ a tear spilled down his cheek and he pulled me in for a hug, one I was unable to reciprocate with the box piled with old books and movies in my hands.
‘I hope I see you around.’
‘You will, I winked. I love skeletons.’
Following my divorce, I remember a great spiritual teacher saying to me, “Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it’s what you do with your time that heals you.” This man was certainly spending his days perfectly. In my rear vision mirror, I watched the tinsel twinkling in the September sunshine disappear over the hill as I drove away. My heart was heavy leaving his energy, and just then, I remembered the message I had received from a listener of the podcast I was recently a part of.
Following the recent interview, I received many messages thanking me for helping them through grief death had brought upon their lives. I was humbled as I had never set out to be well known, I simply wanted to reach as many people as I could, teaching death truly is the biggest lesson in life and if we remember daily that it is coming for us, (I can’t help but think of the theme song for Bad Boys each time I say that) our lives can be enriched every day.
The listener mentioned he has already planned his funeral, even though he was only in his forties. Don’t expect Wind Beneath your Wings by Bette Midler and black suits! This fun-loving man wishes for a jumping castle, a smoke machine and hopes his farewell is the happiest on earth.
Once I got home, I resisted the urge to dive into the hardcover diaries of Andy Warhol I picked up from the garage sale for two dollars, and wrote to this man named Chris* instead.
Our conversation so far had gone like this…
Chris– Hello Emma Jane,
My name is Chris and I have just finished listening to you on the Andy Social podcast. I loved the show…
I have started planning my funeral even though I’m 47. My family think I’m strange Ha Ha! I am a DJ, so I want disco lights, smoke machines and great party songs as well…
When I rang the funeral home, the man on the phone said to me “This is a funeral, not a nightclub!” I was so disappointed but hearing your story has given me hope to be able to share my own life story with my friends and family in a way that I lived my life.
Thank you again,
Me- Good morning Chris,
My heart is full that you reached out to me. I apologise for the brevity of this message as I am heading into work but thank you so much again and you’re wonderful.
A few weeks later, I am on my lap top writing to this fascinating man asking if he would be interested in answering a few questions about his colourful life and plans for a funeral that may very well make headlines in some decades time. He agreed and here it is…you heard it here first!
I wondered if he was also wearing a skeleton onesie, except a glow in the dark version. He is a DJ, after all.
So, you’re a DJ! Tell us a little more about that! What is one of your most memorable gigs?
I have been Djing since 1986. I started out at the local roller-skating rink, moving onto mobile discos, engagement parties, corporate functions, Halloween parties (dubbed Boo Bashes) and more.
One of the most memorable events was a Pre-Wake. (The client asked me to DJ his wake before he died), I originally thought how morbid is this?
The disco was absolutely fantastic as guests wanted to celebrate his life, enjoy themselves over BBQ and beer. The speech was a little teary but the party, scheduled to finish at 10pm, went on until morning.
The music for this wake was extremely lively, not depressing. The client told me he wanted to be at his wake to ensure people had a good time and remembered him for his outlook on life.
You mention you would like to bring to life your love for music through an amazing farewell when it’s your time! Can you describe to us what you have in mind?
Here are my thoughts. First and foremost, please come dressed as you normally would in life. Black suits are welcome if you must, but not compulsory. First song, Alice Cooper’s I Love The Dead, (‘cause this is one of my all-time favourite songs and artist). While this song is playing I would like a smoke machine underneath the coffin and disco lights in the background. A jumping castle for the children so they can play while the service is taking place – they can remember me by having fun themselves.
Other songs I would like is dance music, lively and happy as this represents what I actually like in life. I would like to be cremated, not buried.
You’re still so young, only in your forties. Where did this idea for a great funeral come from? Did you attend a service you weren’t particularly happy with?
I have attended many funerals with depressing music and the service becomes predictable. I find most funerals are not a celebration of life. Our culture is somewhat afraid to celebrate a person’s life at the time of their death. This is a culture that can change if people choose to make it happen. Yes, I am only 47 years old, and some people think I’m weird for considering my own mortality and funeral at such a young age, but I believe it’s more practical to let people know now, helping my family and friends prepare the party to celebrate my life.
You mention most people you know think you’re weird for considering your own funeral at this age. I too get called morbid for applying death to daily living. How do you feel when your loved ones say this to you?
When people call me weird for thinking about it, it simply makes me want it more. I don’t want an average run of the mill service!
My philosophy is to live life to the fullest every day, as you really don’t know when you will die. Enjoy your friends and family, don’t be afraid of living!!! We only get one life, then we die. I am going to make this life memorable for myself and those I come in contact with.
So, there you have it. Smoke machines, jumping castles and all.
This weekend I’ve truly found my tribe. From skeletons and tinsel to DJ’s with a dying wish. I’m certainly not alone when I suggest, let’s work together to make grieving a little fun. Grief shapes you as person, strengthens your soul… and can be the catalyst for one hell of a party.