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Plan a memorial or mind your own business?

Your childhood best friend from next door has died of a drug overdose on the streets of a faraway city. Her estranged brother, who still lives next door, is her only surviving relative. He cut ties with her long ago and won’t consider a proper funeral. You feel she deserves one. Do you arrange it anyway?

By Ken Gallinger and Ruth McQuirter Scott

No. It’s not my place to do so. I’m sorry the relationship between my friend and her brother is as it is, and I’m devastated by her death. It’s an unnecessary tragedy, and my heart is heavy with the loss. But I understand boundaries, so I know I have no right to mess around in their family dynamics.

Therefore I will stand back, respect their family and let the funeral arrangements play themselves out as they will.

But that doesn’t mean I can do nothing. While the family has the right to control the disposition of my friend’s body, they don’t have the right to define my memories or limit how those memories will be shared. The body is theirs; the memories are mine.

So, I will ask my minister to assist in planning a small memorial service for my friend. I’ll schedule the event for a week or two after the burial, so it’s clear I’m not trying to usurp anyone else’s prerogatives. I’ll be very clear, in everything I say and do, that this is not a funeral but rather a time to simply remember my friend, give thanks for her life and pray for her and her family.

We’ll have the service at my church and invite anyone who cared for her to come — including her brother. I’ll try to make it clear that his attendance is not required but invited and welcomed. If he comes, terrific. If he doesn’t, that’s his choice and his loss, and there’s not much I can do about it.

There won’t be a lot of people at the service. It’s been a few years since my friend moved away, and her friends have scattered, as people my age tend to do. But at the end of the day, it’s not about numbers. And it’s not about “proper” either. It’s about honouring the memory of someone I care about. Even if I’m the only one there, it’s something I need to do.

Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

Why do I want to provide a funeral for my best friend from so long ago? I hadn’t spoken to her in years. I had heard she was into drugs, and I tried to contact her several times. My letters were returned unopened, and she didn’t seem to have an e-mail address or Facebook page. Eventually, I gave up.

I know her brother washed his hands of her after years of fruitless attempts to convince her to get clean. He even blamed the death of his parents on the constant worry she caused them.

I can’t bear the thought that she died alone on the streets of that far-off city. Could I have done more to help her? Guilt is part of my motivation, to be sure, but so is compassion. Whatever choices she made, she was my friend. I need to commemorate her life in some way.

The question is how. As a friend, my choices are limited. Funeral homes will not deal with me unless I am next of kin or her executor. The police will not release her body to me for a hometown burial. And what of her brother? Do I have any right to go against his wishes and arrange a funeral? It’s easy to judge him as unforgiving, but I was not a member of their family and didn’t witness the pain they must have endured. Perhaps his refusal to have a funeral is part of his own grieving.

Nevertheless, I will host a small gathering of high school friends to pay tribute to her life. I will let her brother know he is welcome to attend, but I will understand if he declines. At the event, we will share memories of our friend, as well as tears. I will invite the gathering to make a donation to a charity that works with drug addicts. We will lay our friend to rest with compassion and respect.

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