Honouring your life with a memorial service

People with strong religious conviction may take comfort being remembered in death with a ceremony that reflects their religion and its traditions.
As more and more of us leave our churches, temples and synagogues, though, these ceremonies no longer speak to us. And when it comes to our most significant life events, this can leave a gaping hole.
But there are options.
A few weeks ago, in a column on death and dying, I wrote about Unitarian Celebrations of Life. That column struck a chord with a number of readers, who wanted to know more about those services. I’m happy to deliver. In fact, it’s a subject I’ve contemplated writing a book about, deterred perhaps because the obvious title, Dead Good Funerals, was already taken.
I believe a memorial service must serve four purposes: it must help us remember the deceased, grieve their death, give us comfort and, finally, it must call us to honour their life through our own.
These goals are met with four elements: words, music, visual imagery and ritual.
Abundant photos, whether on a wall or a slide display, help us remember. Other visuals reflect the personality of the one who died. Someone who loved to garden might be celebrated with a rich display of plants and flowers. A hiker might be remembered by her boots and walking stick, or a cook by his apron and Mixmaster. It may be a canoe, bicycle or favourite hat or outfit that helps us remember and grieve.
Music can help us remember by reflecting the taste of the deceased, whether it’s a choir performing Edelweiss, or Ella Fitzgerald belting out Mac the Knife. Music can also touch us deeply; a powerful requiem can unlock our grief, while a soloist singing Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World or The Beatles telling us to Let It Be can comfort deeply.
Eulogies are words that help us remember and grieve; poetry and prose can be powerful tools: I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul may sum up one life, while age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety, may celebrate another.
Words also provide comfort. I am not there I did not die; the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference; or, “I hope to see my Pilot face to face/ hen I have crost the bar” are lines from quotes or poetry (in the case of the aforementioned quote, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson) that can acknowledge and soothe our distress or give us comfort in our sorrow.
I suspect most of us will agree with A.A. Milne’s Pooh Bear: “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
Getting something right on paper helps us come to grips with an idea in a way that merely thinking it in our heads does not. It deepens our understanding. Rituals similarly touch us more deeply, creating stronger feelings, than thoughts or words alone.
Traditional ceremonies use ritual in the interment of a coffin and the scattering of dirt in the grave; this can be a powerful way to help us accept the reality of our loved one’s death, opening the door for our grief.
I’ve used ritual to help those who attend a celebration of life remember and honour the deceased in the way they live their lives.
I’ve immortalized gardeners by having friends and loved ones take seeds home to plant, and remembered hikers by giving out stones, exhorting each attendee to find a place wild and wonderful and return it to nature. I’ve honoured remarkable volunteers by calling on all present to go and do something for someone, to offer a service that is needed and new. Lighting a candle at the beginning of a service, and snuffing it out near the end, is a powerful ritual to help us grieve.
If you believe you don’t want anyone to celebrate your life when you’re gone, I urge you to reconsider. Frankly, at that point you’ll be dead, so while this is all about you, it’s not for you. Those you have loved and left behind need to grieve, to remember, to be comforted and to honour you in the way they live out their lives. You don’t need a celebration of life; they do.
And if you don’t want one because you fear you’ll be a 21st-century Eleanor Rigby with a funeral to which nobody came, then you’ve been granted a unique gift. Call it your Ebenezer Scrooge moment; the moment you realized you needed to change your life, to do something for somebody so that, when you die, there will be those who mourn your passing.
Grey Matters is a weekly column by Wanda Morris, the VP of Advocacy for CARP, a 300,000 member national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for financial security, improved health-care for Canadians as we age. Missed a week? Past columns by Wanda and other key CARP contributors can be found at carp.ca/blogs.