“Planning a Memorial Service”
Worship Service for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
April 2, 2017
the Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Call to Worship: from Adlai Stevenson’s Eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt:
“…we must say farewell. We are always saying farewell in this world –always standing at the edge of loss attempting to retrieve some memory, some human meaning, from the silence– something which is precious and gone. Often, although we know the absence well enough, we cannot name it or describe it even [something which is precious and gone].”
Story for All Ages & Singing the Children Out
Musical Call to Worship [Glenn Farr]
*Opening Hymn: #191 “Now I Recall My Childhood”
Candles of Community
Offering and Offertory [Bill Stangler, Congaree Riverkeeper]
The Morning Reading: from Edgar A. Guest’s Eulogy for Henry Ford:
“His was a sensitive heart and his was an understanding mind. He had known hardship and the pangs of disappointment. He had known the agony of wanting comforts for his loved-ones which he could not supply. He had known what it means to be poor of purse, and he could and did read the eyes of the unhappy. He had both sympathy and pity for the woes of others.
It was out of that feeling for his fellows (that) the five-dollar-a-day wage came when the daily universal rate of pay for a workman was a little less than two dollars. He called it good business to have as many contented men about him as was possible. It took courage of a rare sort to lead the way to a decent living wage for the common man.
Henry Ford woke early every morning eager to greet the day and all it held for him. Nothing was too small for him to notice. He loved the earth and all it grew and all that dwells upon it. He knew the birds by name and song and habits, and found peace and happiness in their company.
He loved to escape and talk with humble men. He often said: ‘You can learn more from the thoughts of simple folk than you can from those of the learned and the wise. Wise minds know what can’t be done, and they don’t find out the things that can be done until someone not so wise comes along and tries and does them.’
Henry Ford will be missed. He will be missed in many places where kindness is still needed; he will be missed when righting a wrong and fighting injustice is required; he will be missed by all the creatures of the woods and fields who found in him a friend; and he will be missed by many a struggling youth to whom a word of hope and encouragement would mean so much.”
Responsive Hymn #123 “Spirit of Life”
Sermon: “Planning a Memorial Service” Note: If you would like to fill out a from for planning your own memorial service, you may obtain a copy here. Once completed, we will gladly keep the copy on file in the minister’s office.
Perhaps the most important thing professional ministers do is planning, creating, and leading memorial services. There are specific questions and conversations a minister talks with people about when planning a memorial service, whether for their loved-one, or for themselves. We will all have the need to do so at some point in our lives, for a family member or close friend. As your Interim Minister, I want to provide you with the information you’ll need and the opportunity to talk opening and honestly about memorial services. A congregation or “church home” is one of the few places where people feel allowed, and even encouraged, to talk about such things. One reason I chose to talk about this this morning is our members’ connection to, and leadership of, the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina. Those members include Joan Watterson, Susan Robinson, and Tony Ganong. The Funeral Consumers Alliance does important work and advocacy, here in South Carolina, and in forty-five other states. Their mission is to help you make informed choices when arranging funeral or memorial plans. One service they provide is to annually survey the funeral homes in their state, and create a list of costs of the various things they provide. Those costs vary considerably. This morning, after the worship service, Tony Ganong will be pleased to give you a copy of that price survey, and answer any question you have. I thank Tony, Joan, Susan, and their organization, for the helpful service they provide to everyone in South Carolina, especially people who are in the midst of grieving.
One of the first funerals I ever did was for a man I’d never met. So it fell to his daughter, who was in her fifties, to tell me what was important about him and his life. I asked her several usual questions, including whether he had any hobbies. “Fishing!” she said. At the time I was enamoured of an exquisite piece of writing from the novel, A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean. The last page of the novel describes fly fishing as a spiritual practice. It is one of the most calm and meditative passages I have found in contemporary literature. And it also honors the connection an older man still feels to loved-ones who have passed away before him. I knew that that passage could be a beautiful addition to a memorial service. So I asked his daughter, “Do you mean fly fishing, then? –quietly, from the shore of a river?” “Oh, no!” she replied, “Not my father! Oh, no. He fished from his seaplane out in the open sea. He stood on the pontoons, with huge waves crashing all around him. That was when he felt happiest and most alive,” she added. Think about those two images for a moment, and how different they are. One is so contemplative it’s soothing; the second is such an adventurous recreation that barely anyone I know is so bold. Suppose I had not asked the daughter enough specific questions? Suppose I had not listened long enough to learn enough about the spirit with which her father lived? I still ask myself those questions. The choices we make about what to include in a memorial service won’t always be our favorite passages. Those choices should be a tribute to the person we are honoring, as their fullest best self, and in the complexity of the life they lived.
I’ve met some really interesting people after they’ve died. Some have traveled to most of our fifty states, with the love of their life, in a camper, making new friends at every stop along the way. Some have ventured across storm-tossed seas. Some, having been abandoned in some way as a child, intentionally created beloved communities out of any group in which they found themselves. Many didn’t travel far from home that often– Their focus was on hearth and home instead: gardening, knitting, cooking for family and friends, lending neighbors a hand, helping their town and church thrive. Many lived into their nineties. One was an eleven year old child, named Cristina.
Ministers are often asked to write and officiate a memorial service for someone they’ve never met, possibly won’t even see a photograph of. (Though I always really try to find a way to see one or more photographs of someone I have never met. Even one photograph can tell us so much about the person, their spirit, and what they loved.) So we ask the person’s loved-ones some questions– We try to get a clear picture of who that person was, their spirit, their loves and losses, accomplishments and favorite memories, and how they will want to be remembered. I always ask if the person was a sports fan and, if so, of what team or teams. What gave the person joy? And what did they struggle with? What has given you joy? And what obstacles and challenges have you overcome? I ask if the person has a favorite scripture passage, poem, or other piece of writing that I can include in the service. When little has been discussed beforehand, loved-ones often say to me the twenty-third psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. But ‘most everyone has a favorite few lines they re-read regularly. If only we would make the time to let them show it to us… It’s posted by their computer or on their refrigerator or up beside their kitchen window. To ask the person where and when they found these lines is to hear and honor their struggles and joys.
I also always ask the loved-ones if they have a sense of what the person believed happens after we die. Then, in what I say, I can honor what they believed. What most people say is that the person believed they would be reunited in spirit with their loved-ones who passed on before them. We name those people, and even, sometimes, pets. A few people believe in reincarnation. One man believed he would be embraced in the arms of Jesus. Being able to name a place where the person felt close to God is helpful. Who else was with them in that place? Family, friends, neighbors, the beauty of the animal kingdom and nature? When we listen to those answers, we can picture the person’s most spiritual relationships.
When these things have not been discussed beforehand, the minister’s job is harder, and the service may not be as fitting. It won’t be as deep and full a presentation of the person’s life. And choices may be made that are inappropriate.
My colleague Amy’s husband Kevin is an eternal optimist with an effusive positive energy and enthusiasm. We could even call his personality sunny. And he loves a diverse variety of popular songs. For the record, Kevin is alive and well and in great health. But, in theory, if they had not discussed this matter beforehand, his family might assume it would be fitting to play, at a celebration of his life, “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow,” from the musical, Annie. Kevin hates that song more than any other piece of recorded music on this earth. Now some could say that Kevin would never know– But a memorial service should literally serve the person well. It certainly should not be a jarring nor grating disservice to the person’s loves, beliefs, taste, and spirituality. So if there is a hymn or other piece of music you hate, tell your loved-ones and your minister. I hope the questions in this sermon will serve as conversation starters for you and your loved-ones to have some of these important conversations. And then I hope that you will read, and save, the hand-out in this morning’s order of service called, “Planning a Memorial Service.” It is a list of the questions a minister asks a person when helping with this planning. There are spaces for you to write in your answers. Then you can share this with your loved-ones. And we can keep a copy of it here, in the minister’s study.
Funeral words are the final words spoken, formally and publically, about a person, commemorating their whole life at the end of their utterly precious life. Words and songs and prayers are expressed before their loved-ones –both those physically gathered and those who we recall in spirit— and in the presence of that which is divine. The importance of a final service is no less when it is a small group of people on a hillside than when it is more large and grand. A final service is a moment in time which will not come again. When it falls to us to do so, we need to do our very best to mark those times well for each person who has passed away.
The example of my colleague’s husband Kevin and the song from, Annie is fairly innocuous. But several years ago, a funeral service fell to me that might have ended up poorer than it should have been, or might not even have happened at all. That service is what moves me to talk with congregations about the importance of planning beforehand. I came home at the end of a busy Tuesday following several busy and stressful weeks, at the end of the church year, in June, back in Massachusetts. As I walked to my answering machine, I hoped the message light would not be blinking. All I could think of was how nice it would be to have a day off the next day. Maybe I could take a nice little walk by a lake. Maybe I could linger over a long lunch with some friends. Maybe I could read some things that were not sermon research. I felt glad I did not have any appointments set up the whole next day or evening. But the message light was blinking. I pushed it, and the voice said: “Rev. Barrington, this is [I’ll call her Jane Jones]– Though we don’t know you, we are desperately hoping you can do a graveside service tomorrow afternoon at three o’clock in Templeton” for a man named Alan who died the February before, at only 59 years old, in a small town in Vermont, but had lived in Gardner, Massachusetts. Jane was a friend of Alan’s father. I am sorry to admit that I seriously considered not returning the call, whereas for a member of our church, I would have had no hesitation. Help in urgent situations is the main thing I am here to do for church members. But no clergyperson can respond to every urgent concern of every stranger who asks for help, without keeping to some clear limits and boundaries. I went into my kitchen and drank a big glass of water. I thought perhaps the family had found another clergyperson while I’d been out. But then I remembered that, months before, I had told the secretary of the Unitarian Universalist church in Gardner that she could refer requests for rite-of-passage ceremonies to me, since they had no minister. I had said I would do so till the end of June. No one had called me during the five months, so I’d nearly forgotten what I’d promised. But remembering my promise meant I did have an obligation to return the call. So I picked up my notebook, and called Jane back.
After offering my condolences, I asked her the usual questions as gently as I could. But she had a hard time focusing on answering. I got the idea that Alan had a real zest for life– that he was something of a larger than life character. I asked her what he did for work. She said he owned several bars. That told me he probably had a genuine affection for all types of people, from all walks of life. I could say he fostered fellowship and camaraderie. Jane also told me that Alan wrote several books on beer. So I wrote that down. And I included a poem I like, by John Holmes, calling Alan a “royal-hearted” man “whose kind we shall not see again.” Jane’s directions to the cemetery seemed a bit confusing, so I drove there that evening to make sure I wouldn’t get lost the next afternoon. Jane said she would meet me at the gate at about twenty to three and drive me to the gravesite itself. I really felt I didn’t have much to work with– a great-hearted man of generous spirit who wrote a few books and owned a few bars and, shockingly, died far too young. I considered going onto the internet to see if an obituary was posted. But I felt I didn’t have the time. I now regret that I did not make time to learn more about Alan and his life. I printed out a service from what I had learned, with an extra copy for the family.
When Jane was driving me up the hill, some papers in a folder on the dashboard in front of me fell down into my lap. Jane grabbed them and handed them to me saying, “Here are a few more things I thought you might want to look at.” I was only able to give them a passing glance. But I could see that two obituaries, both quite lengthy, had been printed out from on-line. And then I saw a photocopy with a scrap of a poem that began, “To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite…” it was about eight lines long, and ended with “Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.” The handwritten notes on it said it was from Percy Shelley’s, “Prometheus Unbound.” Alan had studied classical English literature. I should never have assumed a man who owned bars would not know such a poem, but I was stunned. I officiated the service at the graveside, and spent some time with the family. They were very pleased and appreciative of how I had helped them honor Alan. Then I drove home. But later that evening, the mystery of Alan’s obituaries on-line, and that haunting poem, tugged at me hard. So I went down to the church, got on-line, and googled the whole passage. It reads:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
from its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
neither to change, nor falter, nor falter, nor repent;
This like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
Good God in Heaven, I thought to myself, there, alone, in the church office. This man had profound depth, and intellect, and knew extremities of both pain and joy. He was so much more than the man I had thought he was. So then I did an on-line search for an obituary. I found two, and printed them out. The last page of the first one said The Guardian at the bottom. “Oh, so the newspaper for his small town in Vermont must be called The Guardian,” I thought. Then I looked at the first page of it. It was from The Guardian in the United Kingdom. The second obituary, which had printed out by then, was from The New York Times! “How does a person even get their obituary in The New York Times?!” I wondered, astounded. The Alan of whom I’ve been speaking was the world’s preeminent scholar on the history of beer. His books on the brewing and enjoyment of beer in all cultures throughout world history are the definitive texts in existence. He lectured widely about beer, to audiences who loved how he taught them facts and told them stories. He was the expert all the major media called to make an appearance about anything having to do with beer. He was a founding director of the American Museum of Brewing History, in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. And that pub scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark ? The directors surely consulted Alan on how to make it authentic.
But –wait!- there’s more– The funeral home in Vermont at which there were calling hours for Alan that winter had an on-line guest book. The loving entries, which went on for pages, were still posted. Alan was also a mentor for teens and young adults– He noticed their special gifts and graces, and encouraged them to flourish when at that most awkward, confusing and painful age. Decades later those he mentored wrote that the time he took with them made all the difference. One of them wrote, “He could do real magic. He could preach from a cookbook and make you want to yell, ‘Amen.’ He was brilliantly funny… He knew about everything. He had a gorilla suit.” From that funeral home website, it looked like Alan’s family had had only calling hours, no memorial words nor eulogy at all. So it was nearly the case that Alan had no final words spoken formally in his honor. That would have been a crying shame.
But –wait!- there’s more. Jane had told me that one of the bars Alan owned was in Portland, Maine. I just didn’t think much about it at the time; I’ve never gone in much for bar-hopping. But reading the details of his life, I learned that one of his bars was called, “Three Dollar Dewey’s.” That was when I nearly fell off my chair. When I lived in the Portland area in the late eighties, friends and I used to go to Dewey’s all the time. It had the friendliest atmosphere. So I probably did meet Alan back then, chatted with him, reached across a barrier and shook his hand. Now I wonder if the fact that it fell to me to eulogize him was not a random chain of events at all.
Planning a memorial service beforehand isn’t really about our deaths, it’s about our lives. It’s about looking at what has given your life meaning –through the struggles and the joys- and noticing the threads that kept running through it. One of the threads through my life is that I have always, for as far back as I can remember, felt called to tell good stories, in the hope that they will be helpful. Let’s not leave the preparation of the final words that will be said about us to loved-ones who may, understandably, be distraught, distracted, and not very articulate. While we dwell together in peace, please tell us the story of your life.
*Closing hymn (verses 1, 2 and 4 only) #103 “For All the Saints”
*Benediction, from Ronald Reagan’s Eulogy for the Challenger Astronauts:
“We remember Christa McAuliffe, who captured the imagination of the entire nation… instilling us all with the excitement of this journey we ride into the future. We will always remember them, those skilled professionals, scientists, and adventurers, these artists and teachers and family men and women, and we will cherish each of their stories– stories of triumph and bravery, stories of true American heroes.” [Go in peace.]
*Extinguishing the Chalice
Postlude “From Clare to Here,” by Ralph McTell [J.P. Flood]