Reflections on Memorials

Memorial Services Remind Us of  Important Truths and Priorities

A First Such Gathering in a Long Time

 Last week I attended a memorial service for a friend. It was one of the first such gatherings I have participated in since the pandemic began. After such a long absence, I remembered of why such assemblies are important to us all.

By “us all,” I refer not only to the memory of those lost to us, but also to their families, friends, acquaintances, and the larger community.

Different Communities Do This in Very Different Ways

I am a  Unitarian Universalist, a community in which memorial services are much less events of mourning or promises of some specific afterlife, and more of a celebration of lives well lived. Stories are shared, qualities recalled. Laughter is the predominant soundtrack and smiling faces that nod in agreement to what is shared is the most common visual in these gatherings.

Other traditions dominate in other social groups, but they all share some common traits and values worthy of recalling.

A Sense of Community

Memorial services remind us that we are not alone, and that we share much of value that is important to us all. That may be especially so now, after such a long period of isolation. Many of us at the service last week observed just that, how good it was to be together for something we all deemed important enough to gather with each other.

Reminders of What Defines a Good Life

While we may celebrate successful careers, academic honors, or similar elements, we more often cite family, friends, passions, and service in the life being celebrated. It is a recognition that when we take stock, it is these more personal elements of life that really counted.

The rest provides much of the architecture of our lives, and they are important as well, but in the final analysis, it is family, friends, and values lived that anchor our existence. It is the presence of these elements, expressed in how we share our time, talnts, and treasure, that define a life well lived.

The Gift of Planning

My friend had some time to reflect that the end of this life was coming and so he wrote down what he wanted done – and not done – at his memorial service. This was a great gift for those who wished to honor him appropriately. We should all be so thoughtful.

I have known others who left very specific instructions at to what sort of service they would like to see conducted. Location, tone, content, music, even down to menus. I think of one fellow who resolutely declared there would not be a memorial service, but a party – that would be fine. Include his favorite music and foods and he would be satisfied. And so it was done. Everyone had a great time, in part because they knew they were doing what he wished to be done.

Humor Helps and Is Absolutely Appropriate

As noted earlier, this is a time for good stories and hearty laughs. I have mentioned in another posting some time ago a friend who did his own eulogy via videotape. People were stunned to see his image begin speaking to them from a movie screen at the service, but in short order, the laughter followed (it was a humorous eulogy). What a gift.

The service I attended last week was for a fellow who was not, to my knowledge, a particularly religious fellow. Yet at the end of the service, two fellows I did not know stood up and brought out a trombone and a trumpet. They then promptly struck up a vigorous rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In.

We all marched in behind them in our best New Orleans dance steps. What a great way to end the service. My memorialized friend had the last word, as if to say, “Who knows what is on the other side, but’s party out of here on our way to wherever.” Wise words, indeed.

Closing Thoughts

The minister officiating this service had a line in her commentary that I thought was fitting for every memorial service and for our reflections about those who have left us. She acknowledged that we all felt a sense of loss and while many of us do not subscribe to any afterlife theologies, we all can find solace going forward. As long as we cherish and keep alive the memories of those who have passed, they surely are not gone; they remain with us.

I recalled hearing others say in similar circumstances that nothing is ever lost in this Universe. We were all born from stardust. We may transition over time from matter to energy, but we do not simply disappear.

Such thoughts as these work for me. I hope they do for you, too.

         Bill Clontz

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