Funeral for a Friend

funeral for a friend 8.2.13

This May, my dear friend, Franco, had a sudden and severe series of aneurysms. He was 50 years old. It seemed fair to assume he was in the middle, not the end, of his life but of course, you never know. What we did know was that a few months earlier, when his father was dying, Franco told his sister he wouldn’t want to be kept alive if he didn’t know what the doctors were doing to him. Within hours of his arrival at the hospital, Franco’s doctors believed the damage to his brain was too extreme for him to ever recover. After four days with no sign that Franco knew what the doctors were doing to him or ever would, his family and closest friends made the decision to remove life support so his his body could follow his brain.

The day after he died, Franco's friends created a memorial for him on Castro Street.

Franco grew up in Rhode Island and spent his 30s and 40s in San Francisco and Berkeley. His sister assembled a group of his east-coast friends to help plan a memorial in Rhode Island. In respect for Franco’s life and values, this ceremony would be non-denominational, which excuse the pun, is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve been to plenty of traditional religious funerals that feel more like an insult than a celebration. In the worst case, the priest had to pause and consult his notes every time he came to a place in the cookie-cutter service that required him to say the deceased woman’s name. To be fair, at another religious funeral, one of the most beautiful ceremonies I’ve ever attended, the priest stepped down from the altar and spoke candidly about his time with my friend’s mom in the last months of her life.

We were determined Franco’s service would reflect his personality and individual style. But still. What an enormous challenge to memorialize someone when you don’t have a script, not even an outline. I turned to Google and asked “How to plan a non-denominational memorial service.” Did I feel a bit cheesy doing this? Sure, but there is some decent information online and why not turn to the source I use almost every single day? I brought a couple of printouts to our first planning meeting and then we had a place to start. The rest was a matter of honoring people’s memories, which did not always synch up. Like so many people, Franco shared different parts of himself with different people in his life. We struggled over which memories to honor without completely overriding others. Slowly, in fits and starts, our plan came together.

The actual ceremony was almost two-and-a-half hours long, “Longer than Lady Di’s funeral!” one friend said later. One of Franco’s friends, a Wiccan priestess, opened the ceremony with a blessing. His sister emceed. His high school choir sang songs he’d sung as a teenager. Two friends did readings. His brother and three friends gave eulogies — we called it a eulogy in chapters. And then people just started standing up and talking. One man sang a song about San Francisco. None of us planned for the ceremony to go so long but clearly people needed the outlet. (That plus the fact that the ceremony took place two months after Franco died gave people time to think about what to say.)

My contribution was a slideshow set to music that Franco loved. His sister gave me a large stack of family photos that I scanned and his friends sent me digital photos — enough photos to rival Lady Di’s archives. The project became a way for me to spend hours going through the phases of Franco’s life. It reminded me of what Gail Caldwell said when she described writing a book about a friend who died, that it gave her a chance to feel close to her friend again. I also hoped I was creating something to honor the people in Franco’s life, hopefully without leaving anyone out, or hurting anyone’s feelings, though I understood that was probably unavoidable.

Here’s the slideshow, in chapters, just like his eulogy.

Chapter 1: Childhood, teen, and early early adult years, spent mostly in Rhode Island, with a trip to Hawaii and Australia with the Cranston Alumni Choir.

Chapter 2: Franco as an early adult, including the year I met him and we produced the Rhode Island AIDS Walk together. For the event, he recruited his family to make 5,000 sandwiches.

Chapter 3: And then he moved to San Francisco, where he lived, loved, and produced large-scale events for 20 years.

When the Monday morning after the ceremony came, I did feel a greater sense of peace. I will always miss my friend but as Caldwell says in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, “dying doesn’t end the story; it transforms it.” Now begins the transformation.

About Joanne Barker

Joanne Barker is a healthcare writer and editor who lives in Somerville, MA.
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