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What sort of funeral do you want? This new show wants to help you find out

It was inspired by the death of the creator’s father.

No one wants to talk about death, but we all think about what we amount to.

Louise PAC Image (1) Louise White Source: Clodagh Kilcoyne

WHEN LOUISE WHITE’S father died, as happens with so many of us it got her thinking about her own life.

But it also got her thinking about her own funeral. 

Watching the huge crowds that gathered to celebrate his 84 years, she was struck by what a life he’d had. Her thoughts led the theatre-maker into creating the show This is the Funeral of Your Life, where instead of just focusing on herself, she brings the audience along for the journey too. 

White and her family felt lucky to be there during her father’s last days in hospital, but it was an intense time.

“And then the funeral happens really quickly, it’s all within a couple of days,” she points out. When she was in the church during the funeral, she found herself “overwhelmed”. She realised “there were so many aspects of my father that I had forgotten because he was getting progressively older and I am one of the youngest children.”

So I see his decline, and I forgot all the things he did in the community, I forgot how active he was with that, I forgot how strong his faith was.

“There was just this whole world of a man who’d had this impact in his 84 years,” she continues. “And that was really life-affirming actually, it was really exciting, as well as being an incredibly painful day. You were like: well, he left no stone unturned.” 

‘Who am I?

But the loss of a parent makes us face some tough questions. She began wondering “who am I? What kind of funeral would I have?” It was something that popped into her head at the most mundane times, like driving her children to school. 

“It connects with feelings of self worth and my mental health,” she says. “I could understand that it was something, I had a feeling of dis-ease because I thought, how am I going to be remembered?” She had a hunch that if she was thinking this way, she couldn’t be alone in it. 

White says that though it might seem self-indulgent to wonder about such things, it’s very normal too. Funerals make you meditate on what your life is like now. “And if I was to die tomorrow, would I be satisfied with the life choices that I made?” asks White. “Am I on the right path? These intimate questions with yourself, sometimes you’re just trucking along and you don’t think about where we are.”

With This is the Funeral of Your Life, she wanted to give people the chance to join her in wondering. “We explore the idea of what it would be like to conceptualise your own funeral in an environment where it’s funny, and where it’s warm and you’ll be minded and held,” she says. “And it doesn’t seem egotistical or self-indulgent and you can go into that thought experiment yourself without feeling exposed.”

Copyright: Emilia Krysztofiak Rua Photography 2017 Source: Emilia Krysztofiak Rua Photography

A funeral in a parallel universe

There’s some audience participation involved – which people are always free to say no to – with jobs like making sandwiches or doing readings. Just like at a real funeral. And there’s lots of humour.

“We basically take them on a journey where we ask them to think about death and we ask them to surrender to death,” says White. But rather unusually, helping the audience along are an actor, a dancer and a mezzo soprano, who facilitate the ‘funeral’. 

“It’s like a parallel universe of a funeral,” smiles White. “We use all the tropes of the Irish funeral and we do that to try and help the audience to make sense of themselves.”

She says that audience members have laughed and cried through shows. The show isn’t depressing, or sombre, but it really does make people think about themselves and where they are going.  

“Most people have found it really life-affirming, which is interesting because I didn’t know [if they'd feel this way],” says White.

“We’re talking about something that is so tense, dark and bleak but has so much humour in it,” she says.

The audience is loud, and laughing all the time. They come out feeling affected. You get to go into a space where you can think about that aspect of yourself without having to talk to anybody about it. It happens though humour and through some madcap scenes as well.

Being good enough

Going through the process of making the show has helped White herself. “I’d say what it’s done is it’s settled the feeling of anxiety or of not being good enough,” she says.

“Like, we’re all trying our best. Obviously some people more than others. But to feel inadequate at 38 because I potentially won’t have a funeral like an 84-year-old had is like I’m just stopping myself from living.”

She says she has “put a lot of value since making the show on things that are growthful and help me to thrive, and not things that are superficial and bullshitty”. She is trying to release herself, she says, from “being trapped in ideas of what other people think of me”.

“And that is really hard fought.”

Copyright: Emilia Krysztofiak Rua Photography 2017

What does White think about the Irish attitude to death? “Nobody wants to talk about it up until the point it happens,” she says. “Nobody effectively says it to the person [who is dying] because it’s hard even to say it among yourselves as siblings. Even when the consultant says it to you they don’t always say it in the most explicit language.”

She embraces how public funerals are. Though she remembers how painful and harrowing it was to follow her father’s coffin down the aisle as they exited the church, she also remembers that people were looking on.

“The whole congregation was looking at you and they were really offering their sympathy and you could feel it,” she says. “I could barely open my eyes because I didn’t want to catch anybody’s eye but I was bawling and I thought this is so healthy – it’s so healthy to have an acknowledgement, of however many hundred people are in the church.”

There are aspects to our emotional health that we tidy away, but the public display of grief at a funeral is good, says White. “I think the ritual has so much richness in it,” she says. “I mean, loads of people say they love a good funeral.”

This is the Funeral of Your Life continues its tour at Project Arts Centre  Dublin, Wednesday 13– Saturday 16 February at 7.45pm; Dunamaise Arts Centre Portlaoise, Friday 22 February at 8pm; Everyman Theatre  Cork, Monday 25 – Tuesday 26 February 8pm; Visual Carlow, Thursday 28 February at 8pm.

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