Pre-funerals – withdrawal from life or a celebration of positive ageing?

Judith Davey

16/11/17

Is long life a good thing or not? Human beings seem to be ambivalent. Over history and throughout the world, people have shown respect and support to eminent people by shouting “Long live……..”. In the Old Testament, long life was seen as a reward from God – “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short” (Proverbs 10:27). An excellent initiative to show respect and support today is through Age Concern’s Dignity Champions scheme, which I have already joined. (See the Age Concern website for more information.)

On the other hand there are many negative connotation associated with living to a great age – senile, dotard. In 1600, Shakespeare, in As You Like It, typified the last stage of life – “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

And today we talk about the “burden” which older people impose on society – “greedy oldies”, the Grey Tsunami and so on.

But the concept of Positive Ageing implies that older people still have agency to take pleasure in their later years and celebrate their lives. This approach is epitomised in the contemporary Japanese celebration of “pre-funerals”

In a small wood-panelled room on the outskirts of Osaka, a band of mourners have gathered to raise prayers and burn incense for the departed. There is music and flowers and an empty casket. The departed — an elderly husband and wife — are standing with the congregation, still very much alive.

This is a seizensō, or living funeral. A relatively new trend for a country steeped in tradition, the concept was popularised by actress Junko Yamada, who televised her own living funeral. Purposefully upbeat in tone (one of the “hymns” chosen was Santa Claus is coming to town). Yamada shifted the focus from one of bereavement to a celebration of her life. It was an iconic TV moment, even if it was a parody of over-wrought celebrity memorials.

A Japanese anthropologist sees the living or pre-funeral as partly a reaction against routinised commercial funeral ceremonies organised by surviving relatives[1].  Instead it is something more personally meaningful with the “deceased to be” taking the lead in planning the ceremony and a central part, interacting directly with friends and relatives. This also reduces the emotional and financial stress on families – “I don’t want to cause trouble for others when I die.”

The pre-funeral allows people to be the centre of attention once in later life – he or she can say nothing to the congregation at a funeral. Pre-funerals are cheerful and festive, not sombre. Typically the event includes speeches, music, singing and socialising, with religion optional. It is an opportunity for the central actor(s) to say goodbye and thank those present. As is becoming common in New Zealand funerals and elsewhere, slide shows and videos provide a commentary on the person’s life.

There can be an element of leaving social obligations, or giving away possessions, taking up freedom to pursue personal pleasure and agency rather than dependence – older people taking charge of their lives. It can be a way of alleviating the guilt when elders need to go into rest homes and hospices, and grants the opportunity for the “departee” to maintain control of their own exit from family life.

Another factor may be the redistribution of wealth from one generation to the next. Soaring life expectancies mean that many older people are living well into their children’s sixties or even seventies. Where it exists, inheritance can be a retirement lump sum. This “starves” following generations from wealth which could have helped them to fund ever more expensive housing, education and other living costs. Living funerals can provide an opportunity for parents and grandparents to pass on their accumulated wealth. They can downsize to smaller homes and lifestyles, to give their adult children and grandchildren a boost in financial matters. They can also help to pre-empt arguments over inheritance and let the older people have a hand in its distribution.

There are some dangers, however. In Japan there have been stories of frail elderly people being bullied into pre-funerals by demanding children, whose interests are based on greed or what has been called “inheritance impatience”. Isolated elders may be duped by con-men posing as long-lost relatives.

So, as well as being a new cultural export from Japan, pre-funerals, which are becoming evident in the United States and Europe, may be either a valuable contribution to positive ageing and the agency of older people – or a new form of financial elder abuse?

[1] Satsuki Kawano (2004) Pre-funerals in contemporary Japan: The making of a new ceremony of later life among aging Japanese. Ethnology vol.43, no.2 p.155-165

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About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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