If you die near Wellington, New Zealand, there could be a pale young woman at your funeral, with raven hair and delicate, shadowed eyes. None of your mourners will know her or even recognize her, and some might suspect she’s a ghost. She never met you, either. Her name is Kat, and she’s at your funeral only because you were a person once, and now you’re dead.
It’s surprisingly easy to crash a stranger’s funeral. Families rarely orchestrate a private service, and nobody’s checking IDs. But once you’re inside, there are scores of social hazards: There’s the guest book — do you sign your real name? Jot down a somber “remembrance?” What if a loved one is guarding it? What if someone shoots you the evil eye? There’s the prospect of an awkward conversation: “How did you know my mother? Oh, you don’t know any of us? You’re here for the food, then?”
So why do it? Why go to a funeral for any reason other than loving obligation?
Some people may crash funerals for the free food or to land a coveted newly-available apartment, or even the chance to show off “funeral chic” black clothes. True obsessives are drawn to cemeteries or literally can’t stop grieving, like Brazilian Luis Squarisi, who reportedly quit his job to attend funerals full-time after losing his own father.
Harold and Maude, the unlikely couple from the 1971 cult flick, used funerals to escape from conformity (him) and trauma (her). For British granny Lyra Mollington, blogging about funeral-going gave her renewed purpose, and a devoted following, until her own death in 2012.
I went to a stranger’s funeral once, for a story I was writing, and the dead man was very young. Sadness hadn’t swamped me, so I was open to instruction – how to face death, or even transcend it. “Luca” (names of the deceased have been changed out of respect for their families) was smart and a natural prankster, and while I heard about his schoolhouse antics, I’ll never know what killed him or any of his chased dreams. His funeral was in a mortuary — people drifted through, a cell phone tweeted, and an anguished brother tore through tissues. I was largely unnoticed.
In the end, Luca left in an urn, a sanitized and tidy departure. In this sense he defied the shifting ground of today’s more intimate death culture, where the morbid-minded mingle in “death cafés,” and newspapers run photos of embalmed corpses (our generation’s memento mori).
I may have been the outsider, but it was Luca left alone, in the end. It’s like having a chronic illness and watching the world spin at a different speed. It’s what you’ll feel when you are dead, and the sun rises without you.
Artist Kat McBeath didn’t need a stranger’s funeral to become closer to death. It had stalked and found her already. For her, a stranger’s funeral has become the purest place to recognize grief. It’s where she processes her life’s sadness.
She crashed her first funeral in 2007 — then crashed three more in the past year alone.
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McBeath actually thought she was crashing a wedding that first time; a beautiful diversion. Out for a city stroll in Wellington and in no hurry to return home, she’d turned a corner into St. Peter’s Church, where a mass of people flanked the gates. She knew the church, all high Gothic angles, and that she’d be invisible in the back row.
Someone handed her a leaflet, printed with the face of a white-haired woman followed by two dates, McBeath says. Family members were taking the pews, which were otherwise bare. Louisa had, it seemed, outlived most of the people she knew.
At first, McBeath stayed rooted in her seat simply because it was too awkward and obvious to leave. She feared being called out as a “rubbernecker,” just there for the spectacle, but she didn’t move, later blogging about such risky business: “I wish to keep you on the edge of your seat, by playing from the edge of mine.”
But McBeath was also curious. Since her very first funeral, at age eight, where she wanted to touch the “unusually pleasant-looking” body in an open casket, she’d been interested in how we say goodbye.
Watching Louisa’s relatives step up to speak, overcome, triggered a memory for McBeath. She was once again twelve years old and wailing after her father died suddenly of a heart attack. “I said extreme things and was very dramatic,” she says. Family members reacted with awkward, stiff sympathies, leaving her confused and feeling guilty for not expressing herself the way they wanted.
Swearing she’d never be in that position again, McBeath began to muzzle her emotions, which is problematic for an artist. After that, she’d only paint while talking with friends or listening to post-rock, trance music — anything to keep feeling from the point of her brush, to keep from being “alone with my brain,” as she wrote.
So when hymns entered Louisa’s service, McBeath began to sing along (she’s a soprano), giving voice to her own sadness: “Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.”
She floated on the litany, found comfort in ritual, examined grief in a dream state.
The outsider’s voice blended in with the others. “I feel a more pure connection with strangers,” she says. “There are no social expectations, so there’s a lot less going on in your head. You can focus on meaning.”
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At one point during Henry’s funeral, the minister looked right at McBeath and said: “The floor’s open, if anyone wishes to speak.” Of course she had nothing to say. After all, Henry was a stranger, and she’d only just discovered that he’d killed himself.
“It was worded gently that he’d been having mental problems, and couldn’t take the pain anymore,” she says. The mood at his service was nearly happy, because he’d held on so long.
So who did the minister think she was? One of the teens Henry had mentored, maybe. “I was super nervous about being the strange woman in the back,” she says. “But his family might have liked that he’d had a secret woman.”
That’s one hazard to crashing a funeral home, where the rooms are tight — in Henry’s case, a generic space with friends and co-workers perched on stacking chairs, listening to recorded music. It was too clinical a setting for this sensitive man.
For McBeath, his suicide stirred dreams blunted by fear or distraction, the milestones that define us (and maybe shouldn’t). McBeath was raised and homeschooled as a fundamentalist Christian, a belief system that takes a dim view of suicide, but she felt only compassion for Henry.
“I didn’t get the impression that he died prematurely,” she says. “He left after doing everything he wanted.”
McBeath developed such pragmatism by studying neuroscience and psychology in college, and now works as a high school teachers’ assistant, mixing solutions and fixing lab equipment for science faculty. She supports teaching both evolution and creationism (albeit in philosophy class).
She lives in the hills above Wellington, which accounts for a certain fatalism, too – fierce gales are common (locals of “Windy Welly” know better than to carry an umbrella, which will never get vertical) and the city sits on active geological fault lines, so it’s prone to earthquakes.
“A large, damaging earthquake could occur at any time,” the government warns. Especially devastating was the Christchurch quake of 2011, which killed 181 people.
That same year, more Kiwis committed suicide than died in car accidents.
Then there was the Pike River tragedy, in which twenty-nine coal miners were lost, inspiring McBeath to write a song called “Canaries”: “Let our best men work into the ground…when canaries lose their song, the bravest know they don’t have long.” The New Zealand government recently postponed a decision on whether to re-enter the mine tunnel and recover the remains.
As a Christian mystic, McBeath doesn’t blame God or anyone else for the harsh facts of life. They can be overcome with love and harmony – and sometimes macabre humor. She’s a fan of swinger-Satan comics (“I don’t believe in hell, though it’s useful in jokes”) and she invites dead Facebook friends to parties.
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Harrison had gone quickly, after a brief illness, and his funeral came on a bitter, windy day, in a grand chapel with soaring ceilings and balcony seating. His tween children recited the tribute poems they’d written. McBeath, who comes from an unsentimental family, found it odd. “For me,” she says, “grief was too complex to articulate at that age.”
Harrison was a minister and beloved in the community. His status, and sudden death, reminded McBeath of her own father.
The earliest memory she has of him was at the dinner table, when after studying his balding head she noted: “Dad, your head looks like an egg,” prompting shocked, amused laughter from the others.
She might be forgiven for calling him an egghead, because by then William McBeath was a well-respected doctor, descended from hardy Scots who had arrived on the Kiwi coast a century before. William met Kat’s future mother, Barbara, a nurse in the hospital where they both worked. After marrying they settled in Whangarei, a pastoral village in northern New Zealand carved out by long-ago volcanos.
Together they raised five rambunctious children in a gently structured home. Summers were spent in a nearby fishing village, with the kids riding in a little boat towed behind the family van. Similarly, in McBeath’s artwork, she shows friends’ children as cool little sprites, and not too precious.
Barbara was pregnant with their sixth child when William died suddenly. His service was held in a dynamic church, with powerhouse acoustics and spot-lit white walls.
Self-conscious, McBeath couldn’t bring herself to cry during his funeral. She was showered with annoying condolences, shoulder rubs, and probing questions—“Are you okay?”—to which she wanted to reply: “Why? Am I doing something wrong?”
She says she would have liked to see a stranger at his funeral: “I could have talked to them normally.”
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Of all the strangers whose funerals she attended, McBeath most wished she could have met Stella, a humanitarian who’d devoted decades to working with the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people. Stella’s funeral came in a coastal, pocket-sized chapel, and she was buried in a raw wooden casket.
As a member of the choir, McBeath helped “dance Stella home,” shifting from being an observer to being part of the service, with a close view from the altar.
Too close, as it turned out — at one point McBeath’s choir robe brushed the candles flaming on the coffin’s lid. After drifting through other funerals, she’d nearly landed on the pyre herself.
Still, she kept a respectful distance from the grieving family, preserving those boundaries not because of what other mourners might do — sadness is all they see — but because when the music stops and the family leaves with the coffin, she goes back to being an outsider. “You’re more aware of not feeling the same things as everyone else,” she says.
McBeath has always been drawn to the dark, driving hours to shoot video of a moonset, where the night orb seems to sit on the sea. Moons and night skies appear in her paintings, too, beacons for electric zebras, red dragons, lost Greek gods, seals and golden children.
At twenty-two, after graduating college, McBeath worked night shifts at a mental health clinic. She was awake when her friends were not, so there was nobody to see her vomiting, fatigued and ragged from chronic headaches. Finally she crossed paths with an insomniac roommate, who dragged her to the hospital. McBeath was on the brink of a coma.
The benign, inoperable brain tumor had been diagnosed when she was a toddler, but it hadn’t manifested symptoms until now. Doctors saw that it was orange-sized and planted above her brain stem. They placed a shunt in her head, which drains extra fluid from her brain. The shunt breaks sometimes, landing her in the hospital again.
She crashed her first funeral, Louisa’s, soon after getting the shunt implant. Her brain tumor hasn’t grown since then, and it probably won’t be what kills her. None of us know, of course. “There has to be uncertainty in the performance,” she wrote, “for it to fill you with wonder and elation.”
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Anne Berry is a writer and photographer living in New Orleans. She was published in a Random House anthology, “Operation Homecoming,” and has written for The Daily Beast, SportsIllustrated.com, Maxim, Food & Wine’s FWx, OxfordAmerican.org and Hemispheres magazine, among others. Reach her on Twitter and Instagram @AnneBerryWrites.
Beth Walrond lives in Berlin and illustrates for magazines and newspapers internationally.