The Good Funeral Awards


2 July, 2012

I have just finished Irvin Yalom’s book Staring at the Sun. He describes strategies for overcoming the fear of death. In particular I liked the concept of ‘rippling’. We can take comfort in how our lives can shape the lives of others and the world. We can leave a legacy of influence. This is how Irvin Yalom describes it:

‘Rippling, like so many of the ideas I find useful, assumes far more power in the context of an intimate relationship where one can know at first hand how one’s life has benefited someone else. Friends may thank someone for what he or she has done or meant. But mere thanks is not the point. The truly effective message is, “I have taken some part of you into me. It has changed and enriched me, and I shall pass it on to others.”

Far too often, gratitude for how a person has sent influential ripples out into the world is expressed not when the person is still alive but only in a posthumous eulogy. How many times at funerals have you wished (or overheard others express the wish) that the dead person were there to hear the eulogies and expressions of gratitude? How many of us have wished we could be like Scrooge and eavesdrop on our own funeral? I have.

One technique for overcoming this “too little, too late” problem with rippling is the “gratitude visit,” a splendid way to enhance rippling when one is alive. I first came upon this exercise at a workshop conducted by Martin Seligman, one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement. He asked a large audience to participate in an exercise that, as I recall, went along these lines:

Think of someone still living toward whom you feel great gratitude that you have never expressed. Spend ten minutes writing that person a gratitude letter and then pair up with someone here, and each of you read your letter to the other. The final step is that you pay a personal visit to that person sometime in the near future and read that letter aloud.

After the letters were read in pairs, several volunteers were selected from the audience to read their letters aloud to the entire audience. Without exception, each person choked up with emotion during the reading. I learned that such displays of emotion invariably occur in this exercise: very few participants get through the reading without being swept by a deep emotional current.’

Staring at the Sun, How to Overcome the Dread of Death by Irvin Yalom