Change Your Life, Starting with Your Funeral

Pretend you’re dead. I know, it’s a dark thought, but hang in there with me.

Now, imagine you’re dead and you’re at your funeral. Where is it? Who’s there? A big crowd, or just a few people? Are they hugging? Smiling? Crying? Greeting each other? Or maybe they’re quietly arriving and taking a seat.

What are people saying? How are they remembering you? “Great doctor, great teacher, great pipefitter.” Hmm. Do you care what people say at your funeral about your career? Maybe.

What else? “He was a great person. Boy, Joe knew how to catch those fish.” Or, “She was such a dedicated volunteer, always there when you needed her.” Sure, those are nice things to hear.

Still, there must be more. Something more inspiring. Right?

Let’s go deeper. Do you hear anything about your relationships? “He had such an impact on my life.” “She taught me X, and I’ll never forget it.” “He had a way of making everyone feel included.” “She was the best mom.” “He was a great dad.” “She so loved her grandchildren.” “She had more courage in her little finger than most people have in…”

You get the picture. I think most people hope the conversations and stories shared at their funerals will be like the last examples. If you’re not one of those people, then don’t read on. No, actually do! No harm in trying to improve your funeral.

The point is this: How do you want to be remembered?

Many people, me included, spend so much of their time on activities that seem superficial in the context of a funeral. Most people would probably agree that what matters in life doesn’t differ much from what matters once you’re dead. But we don’t spend the bulk of our time focusing on what matters. And in the end, there’s no room for money, nice cars, or accolades—whatever seems to matter now—in a casket or especially an urn. It’s just you in there.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting things or spending your time trying to get those things. But I don’t think it makes us very nice—or very happy. And it doesn’t give people a reason to say something meaningful or joyous about us at our funerals.

There’s also that pesky notion of time. How often do you say it? “I don’t have time.” I’ll bet you could come up with extra time if you knew you were going to die soon.

So if a gap exists between how you’re living and how you want to be remembered, what can you do?

Well, you could start by doing what I did: sob, sob, sob. I called the first person I could think of (my poor, dear husband) and sobbed. This is a true story.

You know the routine: Busy Important (BI) job, BI travel, BI meetings. And, of course, trying to ensure that my children ate well, attended the best preschool, and knew what I looked like. I tried hard. REALLY hard. I didn’t sleep much and was one crisis away from a total mental breakdown. And there was certainly no time in my BI life for a funeral!

Alas, my father phoned to tell me that my Aunt Gladys had passed and her funeral was the day after next in Iowa. I didn’t know Aunt Gladys very well, but I really liked her when I was little, and I wanted to support my dad. Thus commenced the scramble to rearrange several things in my BI job and BI life, and off I drove to Iowa.

I arrived to find a small town, a small church, and a BIG crowd. The place was packed. But it didn’t feel sad there, even though people of all ages were hugging and crying. Then the funeral started. One after another, loved ones, friends, and co-workers all got up and talked about Aunt Gladys. She was warm and welcoming. She made everyone feel special. I’m sure she had her faults, but Aunt Gladys was overwhelmingly loved and admired.

Wow. I sank into my chair in total despair. Here this woman has died and left a hole in so many lives, and all I can think is, “This is amazing. What a person she was, and what a person I’m NOT.” And how selfish is that?

Next comes the sobbing part. I get in the car for the drive to the burial and call my husband. “(Sob, sob, sob) I just left Aunt Gladys’s funeral, and everyone went on and on about how much she meant to them. What’ll they say about me? ‘She was a really good HR director?’” More sobbing.

It was a big “aha” moment in a long line of “aha” moments, one of many “you need to change your life now” experiences. But that was the day I realized that I needed to become the person that I wanted others to remember.

And so I began. My journey so far has produced some big, rewarding changes. I have a lot to tell you, but I’ll save those stories for another day.

Now, back to you. I have provided the “aha” and saved you a pathetic bout of sobbing. To get started on your own journey, think again about your funeral. Write down three things you hope people will say about you.

And then start living the way you want to be remembered.