“Making Memorial Services Meaningful,” a service with 3 speakers, all Prairie UU Society members: Mary Mullen, Sonya, and Erin Bosch
Mary Mullen’s remarks.
Today’s subject, “Making Memorial Services Meaningful,” may be a touchy subject. I suspect that most of us would rather not dwell on death and dying. Thinking about memorial services can only remind us of our own mortality.
When I considered this subject in the context of Prairie and UUism, three things immediately came to mind:
First, a UU minister’s question to a workshop group I attended: “Who are funerals for?” he asked us. His answer, surprising to me, was , “For the living.”
Secondly, I think of a host of funeral experiences I’ve had at other churches over my lifetime, and
Finally, I relive the revelation it was for me to attend my first Prairie memorial service. I came away from it, and every subsequent Prairie memorial service, refreshed even though with a certain amount of regret that I had not known the person as well in life as I came to know her or him in death.
The purpose of today’s service is to give us all occasion to think about how to create a memorial service that’s meaningful and satisfying.
With this purpose in mind, I looked at Final Choices, a booklet created by First Unitarian Society in 1983. We still have a few copies.
A first piece of advice is NOT to overplay your own arrangements because “room must be left to accommodate the feelings of those who are left.” (p. 2) Notice the resonance with the answer to the question, “Who is the service for?”
The booklet Final Choices also warns against demanding that there be no service or fuss of any kind. It eloquently states this:
You should remember that these ceremonies are for the living...” that a “final ceremony is often seen by survivors as ‘the right thing to do’ as a way of satisfying many needs - saying farewell, expressing and assuaging grief, reaffirming your life and the things you stood for, and giving your friends an opportunity to let your survivors know that you mattered to them, a gesture that is often very important to people. (p. 11)
Final Choices poses 3 questions to consider in planning a memorial service:
What will comfort your friends and relatives?
What will help restore their belief in the integrity of life?
What will help them recover their perspective of the meaning of life and death? (p. 11)
I have to tell you a sad story of a funeral I attended where the youngish minister gave a sermon for a 96-year-old woman, my partner’s grandmother, that met NONE of these criteria. Hearing his sermon, I doubted that he had ever met her. He spent his 20 minutes ranting on about how terrifically sinful she was. I guess his point was that “We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Of course, I agree that nobody is perfect, but is a funeral of anyone the place and time to deliver a sermon about how evil and sinful they must have been?
These weren’t comforting words, they definitely didn’t restore my belief in the integrity of life, and though this sorry minister may have meant them to give a perspective on the meaning of life and death, I don’t think that ANY of the relatives or friends found his perspective helpful. To me his remarks were enraging. I wanted to stand up and yell that if this woman had sinned, it probably hadn’t been for 20 or 30 years. Actually, I wanted to punch him out of his pulpit!
Finally, I want to note some current American trends related to commemorating the death and life of the deceased. I’m sure you’ve all noticed the proliferation of roadside memorials. They are part of a trend to expressing grief more publicly according to folklorist and anthropologist Sylvia Grider. She feels that the Vietnam Memorial wall changed American culture. When people visited, they left offerings there. I want to mention one roadside memorial that used to be on Highway 14 near Oregon. I passed it every school day. It commemorated an 18-year-old girl who was killed on the icy road, the sister of a boy who was my 4th grade student. I still think of them, their parents, and the actual memorial service every time I pass the spot .
The other major trend is personalization of memorial services, something Prairie mastered long ago. This trend is epitomized by the headline in a recent (7-20-06) article in the New York Times. “It’s My Funeral, and I’ll Serve Ice Cream if I Want To.” The writer (John Lelland) credits the baby boomers who are more demanding consumers and have “fewer attachments to churches, traditions, or organ music.” Or, I would add, people who found the church rituals depersonalizing, empty, and dissatisfying.
Another expert says that these personalized services appeal to baby boomers because the boomers are “all about control.” He says that “This generation wants to control everything from the food to the words to the order of service...What they want ... are services that reflect their lives and tastes.” Doesn’t this make sense if services are to be meaningful? And doesn’t it sound like people - baby boomers or not - are dying for the kind of lay-led tradition we have here at Prairie!
– “I Did Not Die,” by Melinda Sue Pacho
Do not stand at my grave and
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and forever cry.
I am not there. I did not die.
Personal Story on Memorial Services: One Person's Opinions Based in Personal Experience
When I was 33, I attended my first funeral-that of my father. I visited him for the last time the week before he died and at that time was faced with the task of planning his funeral. It was a difficult process, but I felt that the church guided me in making the plans and helped make decision-making easier. These are some of my opinions on planning and participating in a service based on my experience:
· I believe that children should be fully involved with the experience of dying and death and should attend memorial services. My nephew really got a lot out of the experience and was of great comfort to us but sadly, he was the only child at any part of the funeral. I also feel that it would have been valuable to me to have been to other services before that of my own father.
· I believe that it is OK for a funeral to reflect different belief systems-I imagine my experience of not being a practicing Christian with a parent who was involved in a Christian church is probably not rare among Unitarians. If you have something that is meaningful to you, don't expect others to include it, include it yourself-take the initiative and make it happen. My brother and I were able to do this by creating a prayer card to give away at the visitation that also included a biography of my father and highlighted his accomplishments.
· I believe that as a family member or friend of the deceased it is important to participate in the memorial service in a meaningful way, but it is also important to take other sayings/customs that you do not believe in, some of which may be downright offensive, in stride. I took comfort that other people found the service comforting and meaningful to them, even if parts were not meaningful to me.
· Ultimately memorial services are for the living, not the dead. I think that people who make specific requests of what do when they die are really helping their loved ones left behind by reducing the chance for disagreements and taking away the guilt of “doing the wrong thing”. Although my brother and I were challenged on the question of burial versus cremation, I took great comfort that we did not go against the church, and that in my own belief system, it really does not make a difference.
Reading – “All Return Again,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not
die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the
window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not
dead; he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor
Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could
easily tell the names under which they go.
Erin Bosch’s remarks
I want to begin my portion of this service by telling you about the Caring Groups that we have set up at Prairie. The goal of these groups is to provide you with someone who has told you that you have permission to contact them if you ever need some support, and that certainly includes when you need help with a memorial service. Every Prairie member belongs in one of the five caring groups. You have been notified whose group you are in, but in case you have forgotten, you can check the list that is on the bulletin board in the back of the room. We also have a ceremonies committee that can be helpful in planning things like memorial services, weddings, and child dedications. There are binders with ideas for these ceremonies on the bookshelf downstairs in the room next to the office. I will read just a few items from this binder on memorial services… it contains some very helpful information. I think that Doleta prepared this binder… writing and obituary, transporting a body, who to contact etc.
One of the objectives of this service today is to encourage you to take a few moments to think about what you might want for “your” memorial service… and to perhaps write that down. I was going to also emphasize to keep in mind what your “survivors” might need to comfort them in that service, and the previous two speakers also emphasized that, so I will just share one quick example. When I was pregnant with Heidi I wrote down some information for my husband. I was only 30 and did not really expect to die in childbirth, but you never know. I told him that I wanted to be cremated but that if my very Catholic family wanted to have a Catholic memorial service, without my body, in Chicago, that he could let them. I figured that my mother would be pretty upset by my death and if a Catholic service would comfort her, I didn't care. I wouldn't be there. I was a fairly new Unitarian at the time. Now… with my mother no longer alive, I don't think any of my family would suggest this, but if they did, I really wouldn't care. So that's what I mean by keeping in mind what might help the survivors.
One element that is often included in Unitarian services is a time for “open sharing” where anyone can speak. Probably the first UU memorial service that I went to was John Grindrod's which was held at First Society. A woman near me said a very nice thing about how John and Shirley had helped her so much when she arrived in the United States. But there is a “danger” to this… at one service a young man who had known the deceased stood up and said that the music that had just been played didn't seem like the guy he knew in high school, who was a metal head. This seemed inappropriate to me. Maybe he just wanted to say something about the person he knew, but it came out as critical, and that was just not necessary. The music was chosen to comfort the survivors, and it was music the deceased had liked at an earlier age, so that man's remarks were not really good. You don't have any “control” if you open the floor so that anyone can speak, yet some really nice things can get said… things that the family might not know about their loved one. So it's a tradeoff… think about the benefits/risks… and perhaps make a decision yourself… and write down your wishes.
You can even choose the readings you might like… and who you might like to do a eulogy, if they are up to it. Doing a reading is a lot easier than doing a eulogy. And do let someone know if you have a verbose relative that you would like to “not” be asked to speak. I remember standing next to Marty Drapkin in the kitchen at one service where someone was going on and on about things that did not really relate to the deceased and Marty said to me… please don't let this happen at my service. I should have asked him to give me “specifics” on how to prevent that (smile).
We also need to consider some practicalities… like where you would like your service to be held. Prairie folks might say that they want it to be at Prairie, but the challenge is that this room will not hold more than about 120 people, and one has no idea how many will show up at a memorial service… it's like having a party and no idea how many people you invited. More people show up than you expect… this has happened a few times and it is a challenge. Shirley Grindrod's service was at First Society… because of Bob Durkin. There was a conflict regarding the building. A concert had been scheduled at the same time. It was solved by sending the concert elsewhere, but we really shouldn't rely on FUS to hold our services. So I did some brainstorming and one option we have is to have a service at Memorial Union. Rooms are free to Union members, and Marilyn Ruecking has said she would reserve one for Prairie if needed. If a service is held at the Union, you have to use their catering and can't bring food in, so afterward it would probably just have to be coffee. If it “is” held at Prairie, it is fine to ask people to bring finger food to share. People “like” to bring food, it gives them some concrete way to help. There has always been too much food.
One last note… I read in the paper of a 90-year-old man who threw himself a memorial service. This makes so much sense to me if you are lucky enough to live to a ripe old age. You might as well be around to “hear” the nice things folks are going to say about you. I think it is an idea that should catch on. And it's different from a birthday party, because people say different things. I think it would be fine if we gave each other permission to have our memorial services while we are still alive.
I could talk more about some of the services I have been to, or helped with, etc…. but my time is up. You can ask me during coffee time if you would like to hear more specifics.
Closing Words – “Peace my heart,” by Rabindarnath Tagore
Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment, and say your last words in silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way.