There are things Twin Oaks does reliably well and funerals are one of them.
I dislike most funeral formats. Too much religious singing or scripture, often reflecting the wishes of the minister rather than the person who passed. Too much waiting around for people who are not skilled at public speaking struggle to prove they really cared in oft too long and pained presentations.
Ex-member Kate facilitated the funeral in a Quaker style where people shared what they were moved to say. Almost everyone was funny in an appropriate way because we knew it would take powerful joy to cut the tragic sadness of losing this person with incredible potential. Very few prepared remarks (though Carly penned this amazing piece), lots of short heartfelt memories.
As an event organizer, I evaluate this from two perspectives: First is “What would Gwen think?” And I think she would have been very pleased at all these people from her life saying these comic and amazing things about her. She would have felt seen and celebrated.
But the other perspective is what it must be like to be one of Gwen’s girlfriends in attendance. What would it be like to be among so many people whose principal connection with my partner is that they raised her? Would they be like that relative who does not see how embarrassing it is to show these old photos?
No, we are better than that. There were some endearing stories of young Gwen, like the one Tigger, her father, told of Gwen at 4 years crying:
Tigger: Gwen, no one gets their way by whining and crying
Gwen: Dad you don’t know anything about whining and crying.
But this is a story of Gwen in control and defiant and it reveals perhaps the most important not-quite-secret ingredient in what makes commune collective child raising so great. We teach defiance.
We teach kids how to hide from their parents when that is appropriate. We teach kids how to know when to break any rule. But more importantly, we teach how to be a conscientious rule breaker. How to know when you’re breaking rules and which rules are silly and should simply be ignored and to know what rules matter and why.
Gwen was the closest thing Willow (my daughter) had to a sister. But in some ways commune life made them much closer than most siblings would be. For almost a decade they were in every class, preschool or play activity together. They ate most meals together, hung out together at most parties and celebrations. And they shared approximately 2 bazillion hours of various video game chats together. Most siblings a year apart in age spend much less time together.
Gwen’s coffin surrounded by family and clan
Understandably Willow is pretty broken up about it. She was crying often during the funeral. I don’t consider myself a particularly great parent. But one thing I feel our family did well with Willow was encourage her to cry things out. No shame in tears, they are expressing needed emotional release. Let them flow.
But I am not worried about Willow though she is clearly hurting. Because emotional resiliency is another not-so-secret ingredient.
Editor’s Note: Though it is a bit old fashioned, i try pretty hard to run blog posts past people who are featured and named in them, to make sure they are comfortable being represented this way. Willow gave her blessing and happily thought i was actually a fine parent. Kate who facilitates sacred ceremonies, was happy to be called out. And Gwen’s dad Tigger approved this text before it was published. Carly shared her letter and amazing pictures. Thanks to Summer for more pictures and Kelpie for edits and tech support. Thanks to all of them for quick turn around on this recent event
When I came to community 16 years ago Marione was doing several of the jobs I was interested in taking on. She was managing the visitor program. She ran the movement support area of the communities activities, which is responsible for helping both the activism of members and work done by outside groups to make the world a better place. She also was responsible for orienting new members of Twin Oaks for the first 6 months after their arrival. Over the first few years of my membership, I would work with her in all these areas and slowly take her place as manager.
Yesterday morning at 2:03 AM Marione passed.
I have many fond memories of Marione, one of earliest was her important work at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning Georgia. It was 1999 and the public effort to close this terrorist training facility sponsored by the US government was in full swing. [Here I am using the classical definition of terrorism where non-military persons are deliberately targeted torture and death to advance political agendas. This is exactly what the military and political graduates of the School of the America’s do, paid for by our tax dollars. Graduates include Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.] Marione and Ione organized a group of Twin Oakers to go down to the protest.
Marione and Ione had gone the previous year and been arrested. This was significant because the military base desperate to stop the protests had decided to dramatically increase the jail sentences of repeat offenders. Several nuns and priests who had been arrested more than once in the months leading up to the large fall 1999 action had received 6 month sentences for simple trespass.
There were hundreds of people risking arrest at the 1999 action, and thousands of people involved. But all eyes were on the about 30 individuals, including Marione and Ione who were risking their second arrest at the site. It was a huge gamble. The military had already run almost a dozen people thru the harsher penalties of 6 months or more in prison for repeat offense trespass.
Marione was already about 70 at this point, we were convinced a half year jail sentence would hurt her health at least. Ione was older, this was not an action without risk. But they were both clear they were going to do it, regardless of the consequences. I remember seeing her as a hero and crying when she was arrested.
Fortunately, their action broke the bases will. They called the militaries bluff and forced them to back down from imprisoning repeat offenders. And Marione and Ione received the appropriate heroes welcome when they were soon released.
Marione died gracefully. Every day for the last week or so people have gone over to sing at her place. When Ione called her on the phone, she was not speaking but broke out into a huge smile. People were with her around the clock for the last few days. Some of her family was here already.
The new hospice (Apple Tree) worked well to support people in there last stage of life, while keeping it’s other functions separate.
Death is never easy. The best you can hope for is to find it in as supportive environment. Marione had this and I am proud of our ability to offer this to her.
Bye, Marione. There is much to appreciate in you.
Here are three of my favorite moments in Piper’s passing and our funeral/memorial service:
-I got to see Piper’s body when she came back onto the farm and was already lying in her coffin. She was wearing her purple glittery party dress, which she last had on at the Halloween party, when we danced together. She looked very peaceful, her face had a slight smile, she seemed both very much like herself and very different at the same time. The body really does not look the same when the spirit/soul is no longer in it.
Then I noticed that Piper still had her hearing aids in. Back in the late spring when I first got involved in conversations with Piper and others about her maybe dying soon, I was told that her hearing aids had been very expensive and were meant to be re-fitted and used again by other members after her. So I knew I shouldn’t let them go into the grave with her. It felt a little scary to be touching her ears and trying to pull them out, she was so cold from having been kept on ice at the funeral home for 2 days. The hearing aids didn’t give or budge at all when I gave them a light tug, and I worried about how frozen or stiff Piper might be on the inside.
But I had known Piper for many years as a frugal and thrifty person, who was always saving coupons to get good deals, and I was convinced that she would want these hearing aids to not go to waste. So I spoke to her and said: ”Can you help me out here, Piper?”. After that, they both slid out easily and comfortably with just the slightest pull. With this feat accomplished, I slipped some pennies into her sleeve, so she’d be able to pay the ferryman. And ex-member HLH (who worked with Piper on Reading Windows for many years) put a Flashcard with Reading Words into her hand.
-I got to share my story about Piper’s plans for after her death when we were all gathered around the grave-site. Back in the late spring she and I were speaking about what happens after you die.
Piper said: “I’ve always thought that when there is no proof or evidence telling you what the truth is, you are free to believe whatever you like. Don’t you think so? So I choose to believe in reincarnation. Being born again sounds good to me, I have more things I want to do here but this body is too old and failing me. I’m ready to come back in a different body and do more things. I think that for my next life I would like to come back as a black child. I would like to be someone who takes on racism, and accomplishes a lot in breaking the stereotypes and false beliefs that so many people hold about race. I’d like to really make a difference there. So I plan to come back as a little black child.”
I look forward to that, Piper. Goddess knows we can use someone with your persistence and determination tackling that important issue. And I hope I get to be around again and have some of my work overlap with yours.
-After having come down the hill from the graveyard, I went to the memorial dance at ZK. It felt good to be celebrating Piper’s life by dancing in her honor. I had loved Donné’s story about how Piper helped her get her dancing shoes back. Donné, mother of one of our members, was newly guesting at Twin Oaks 6 years or so ago and feeling a little awkward sitting at the side during a dance, yet feeling hesitant to join in. When she saw Piper walking in she thought: “O, great, an older person, who will sit with me”. Yeah, right….
But my favorite part of the dance at ZK was the large pot of hot cocoa standing off to the side. One of the very last things Piper let herself enjoy on this earth and here it was, in huge abundance made available to us all. Thank you, party prep people, for this sweet and meaningful detail!