Saturday, January 24, 2009

Memorial Services

I went to a memorial service this afternoon for a friend, 41 years old, the father of four kids, age 11 to 17. He was one of those people who could look at a computer part and know exactly what it was and where it fit. He worked in programming, and knew computers inside and out. He also was a lover of science fiction, Star Trek, and Star Wars. This could also be a description of some of the males in my family, and he was a good friend to them. I'd sung in choir with him for some years when he was a member of my church, and my family had gone to some gatherings in his home. He had a big heart, a great laugh, a keen intelligence, and a sly sense of humor. He will surely be missed.

Since I lost my mother when I was a child, one of my first concerns was finding some grief resources for Joseph's children. Some of my friends who also work in grief and loss helped me find a family grief support group in east Texas, where Joseph's three daughters and ex-wife live. I'll be sending some information to his wife and son next week about groups in the Dallas area. Any time there is a death in a family with children and teens, I always hope they will find one of those family grief support centers that exist in many parts of the country now. They are healing places.

Another thing that is healing is a good service of remembrance. Memorial services, funerals, celebrations of life, and other rituals are so important to the people left behind. I'm old enough now to have gone to services for friends and family, and I've been thinking about those that touched my heart and those that left me a little cold.

Joseph's memorial service was one of those that got everything right. There was music, scripture, stories about Joseph from friends and family, laughter, and tears. I felt at the end of the service that I knew him a little better, and was honored to have been his friend. Since Joseph knew he had a terminal illness, he asked some friends and family to share some memories. I'm glad he was able to help in planning his service.

A few services I've gone to have been very formal in nature, where most of the funeral liturgy and music was decided long ago, with the name, dates, and a little personal information added in. These seem to focus on the promises of scripture and the life beyond this one, and often are in the form of a mass or service for the dead. If there is an opportunity in the service for the leader to talk about the person who died and tell some of their stories, these are okay, but not as uplifting as the one I attended today.

It's especially difficult to go to memorial services for young people. One I attended last year for a friend of my son included a touching service and then a time at the reception where anyone could take a microphone and share remembrances. It was wonderful to see how this young man had touched so many lives. Again, there was laughter, and there were tears, and there even were times the boy's parents learned something new about their son. You could see their pride in how he had lived, and their sadness that he was gone too soon.

I went to one service some years ago for two elementary age children that I will never forget. The pastor of the church was young, and perhaps had very little experience with death in his congregation. Two children from the same family died of an infection, days apart. The music was touching, the slide show about each child very nice, but the sermon left me cold. The pastor didn't talk about the tragedy of one family losing two children in the same week. Instead, he chose to build his sermon around the phrase “These deaths are a victory for God!” He went on to say that these children loved God and more than anything wanted to be in heaven with him. He ended with an exhortation for people to come to Jesus so they could go to heaven like these two. Now, I am a Christan, and I am not afraid of death, and feel like I will have great joy after I die, entering into God's presence, and seeing people who have gone before me. But I do hope my family is allowed to grieve as much as they wish, without people adding some sort of guilt trip to them for doing so. I especially object to telling people that they should praise God's goodness and victory when children die. I went up to the mother after the service and told her she needed to grieve and mourn, because “blessed are those who mourn, for they will find comfort.” I hope she remembered what I said, if the thought came to her that she was somehow wrong for feeling mad at God and desolate at her children's deaths. Someone once told me “God doesn't take people, he receives people”. I believe He was in heaven mourning the death of these children, just like the rest of us should have been.

A few memorial services I've gone to have had “pass the microphone” times. I have enjoyed hearing the stories people tell about the person who is gone. One service for a young man who'd been an outstanding singer played a recording he made of the song “Silent Night”. It gave me goosebumps. I've also gone to a memorial service of person who had taken her own life. I was so glad the minister acknowledged the circumstances and addressed the spiritual questions in a way that was very healing to the family and attendees.

Each time I go to a service, I think a little more about what I would plan for myself, if I am able to have a say when my time comes. I do want music, and scriptures, and storytelling. I'd like people to pass the microphone either at the service or at a reception afterwards. I hope for a long life, but I do hope I don't live so long that I have no friends left to attend my service when I die! And there is a song I wrote some years ago that I want to put on a CD some time between now and then. I would like this song played at my memorial service, and hope other people will get goosebumps. It could happen.

My life’s a constant journey. I make stops along the way.
I find some places fit me, and some where I can’t stay.
Some farewells are bittersweet, but I still walk the road
Looking for that welcome, when I’m finally home.

Lights like beacons calling when the night is falling
Open hearts and open arms, I’m home
I’m anticipating you will be there waiting
I won’t stop until I’m finally home.

From "Finally Home" © 2006 Sue Rafferty

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