It isn’t easy in the slightest to go to a funeral for someone you knew well and cherished, so why would one ever go to a funeral for someone they never even met? This is the question I found myself asking as I piled into a room full of about 40 people from my L’Arche community in Inverness, Scotland. The room was full of people wearing black….but…it was also full of people wearing yellow. A core member (person with a developmental disability) named Fiona had recently passed away, and her favourite colour was yellow. She liked the brightness of it and how it reminded her of the sun, of warmth, of laughter, and of friendship. She even moved into a L’Arche house named Grianan, the Scottish Gaelic word for “Sunshine.” This house was directly linked in a duplex-style housing plan to another house named Saorsa meaning “Freedom.” And that’s what Fiona was. She was free, even in spite of her physical and developmental limitations, because she knew she was loved and held by the care and support of many who loved her.
Her funeral was much longer than any other memorial I have ever attended, but time seemed to be suspended as core members and assistants alike shared poems, stories, and pictures of Fiona. As they said their final farewells, they wrote on yellow cut-out paper hearts all the things they would have wished to have said to her but never had the opportunity. These heart messages would be placed in a specially decorated memory box for Fiona.
Fiona’s boyfriend also spoke. He and Fiona had been partners for a long time. They went on trips together, shared meals together, and he visited her every Sunday at her house. He recounted a time when Fiona first asked him to be a couple with her. Her exact words were, “You and I should be together so that we can make others laugh.” He even referred to her as “a cheeky little monkey” – a great term of endearment here in Scotland.
I was off work that day and was under no obligation to attend her funeral. She hadn’t been part of the community for over two years as the result of her declining health. I never met her, so why should I use my free time to attend a community gathering as solemn as this? The answer is this: memorials are a way of respecting and honouring someone’s life. In our ableist culture, we tend to fête and idealize celebrities who pass away, because we feel they have made a significant contribution to our world. When a movie star, singer, or actor dies, his or her name is mentioned in all the newspapers and tabloids. When someone who has made a contribution in the field of medicine, scientific inquiry, theology, or psychology passes, we feel a sense of gratitude for their commitment and inventions. But oftentimes, the contributions made by a person with an intellectual disability are ignored, and that’s not the way it should be. The Bible tells us, “God uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise,” (1 Corinthians 1:27). L’Arche has taught me that God also uses those whom society deems unfit to teach us what humanity, love, laughter, and life is really and truly all about.
Listening to people share at Fiona’s funeral brought me back to this place of realizing how everyone who walks on this earth has something to share and contribute. Fiona was a person with a disability, but she was also so much more. She was a girlfriend, a daughter, a friend, a traveller, an adventurer, an explorer, a dancer, and that only begins to scratch the surface. When the box got passed to me to stick my little yellow heart into it, I wrote, “Dear Fiona, I never knew you, but you’ve left a legacy.” She taught assistants from around the world to interact with her and get to know her, not for her disability, but for her personality, not because they were paid to care for her, but because they entered into a community in which she was a part and in which she urged them to get close to her and to be her friend.
This week in community has been full of ups and downs. Death is not easy for anyone, and it is especially difficult for people with disabilities to process. But we’ve also had laughter and joyous occasions. Also this week, one of our core members celebrated his 70th anniversary with great fanfare and a ceilidh band. In his own words, “Birthdays are a way to thank someone for being born.” So in celebrating a birthday and in honouring the legacy of a great woman, the message is the same – thank you for being born, thank you for living, for showing us yourself, and teaching us the true values of humanity and love. But most of all, thank you, Fiona, for your life that continues to shine forth, proclaiming a message of equality, respect, and dignity, whether in this world or the next.
Deborah Ferber is a Field Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She is currently living and working in a L'Arche community in Inverness, Scotland.