Saturday, May 5, 2012

Over My Dead Body

Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death. ~Erik H. Erikson

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of participating in the memorial service for my dear friend Martha Jean Sams and learned two important things about funerals that I want to share.  One, it’s O.K. to have fun at a funeral and two, preparation of a eulogy is good for the soul. 
We had a really good time at Martha Jean’s funeral. In fact, I had so much fun that I thought I should have been the one writing the thank you note to the family instead of the other way around. It was a weekend long combination of reunion, party and grief support. While I kept reeling in my joy over the reunion part in an effort to honor those hurting, everyone seemed to have as much fun as I did and we kept reminding ourselves “she would have wanted it this way.”  It is a difficult line to walk between celebrating a life believed to have ended in the glory of a soul entering heaven and keeping open to the tenderness of hearts broken. 

In preparing my thoughts for how
best to memorialize Martha Jean, I bragged on the fact that she wrote her own obituary.  It was fun to chuckle about her tendency to have been a bit overzealous. (See my eulogy for her here). But don’t get me wrong; I was not making fun of her for this act. I think writing your own obituary is a kind and practical gift to your family.  It’s one less thing for them to worry about when they’re planning your funeral.  That’s nice and I recommend it.  What I recommend more is writing eulogies.  I think everyone should sit down and write a eulogy for each of his or her loved ones before they die, during a time when all is well. 
An obituary was originally just a legal notice to which we eventually added a brief biography.  At different points in history and in different size cities, the publication of an obituary in the area newspaper is often reserved for the rich and famous.  Everyone wants to publish an obituary for a lost loved one, but it is fast becoming a thing of the past because it has become very expensive, and therefore once again exclusive. Most people nowadays use the more affordable on-line memorializing sites like legacy.com.
But a Eulogy is something quite different. A eulogy is a speech in which we say praises and applaud a person, not necessarily after they die.  Eulogies have long been a part of other toasts of persons, like at birthdays and retirement dinners. This has, however, gone by the wayside and eulogies have become too often reserved for funerals only. Protestants usually expect the pastor to eulogize the deceased but most often the deceased has outlived any pastor who actually knew him or her. This is hard for both preacher and listener. Some funeral planners line up folks to speak who knew the deceased. It is customary for the eldest son to eulogize his parents, for instance.  But priests tend to redirect efforts to allow friends and family to “say a few words” because this risks taking away from the liturgical rites and may end up making the liturgy last until midnight making everyone feel overwhelmed and exhausted, not best for the celebratory mood best hoped for. The church prefers a homily as the liturgy is about the celebration of resurrection in general and toasting the deceased takes away from this focus.
So, for various reasons we’ve lost the art of the eulogy.  The good news is that many churches have found ways to include a eulogist while maintaining the integrity of the obsequies.  It helps if you can find a clergy person who actually knew the deceased in the event the pastor didn’t.  I’ve been very useful in this role lately as I have served many churches, and I keep up.  So, I’m becoming a eulogist and I find it has enhanced my spirit.
Consider this challenge then, to write down in 800 words or less what you love and will someday miss about your spouse, partner, sister, brother or parent, or friend.  It will give you an interesting look at your relationships, it is an exercise in gratitude, that most healthful of all attitudes, and it will lead you in an appreciative way of living with the full acceptance that none of us is infinite.

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