What I Learned at a Funeral about the Power of Love
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
It was a lovely memorial service if there can be such a thing.
The church building was relatively new. The sanctuary was clean and modern, the seats comfortable.
And for the 100 or so in attendance, the service was moving, brief but powerful.
My dear friend, Ellen, died in December 2021. Hers was a long fight with cancer. She survived far longer than doctors had predicted. And until the end, she remained active and lively.
Ellen was married to my best friend, Steve. They had been married for 47 years, the only couple among my oldest friends whose first marriage had survived.
I was best man at their wedding, although I have no memory of the event. Steve and I had partied hard the night before. It is amazing to me I was able to stand for the wedding pictures. But there I am, visual proof I had managed to stand up for my friend.
For several years, as Ellen battled her cancer, Steve struggled with his own health issues. It was a hard time for them.
Ellen’s memorial was delayed because her church had been dislocated for a time and then moved into a new building. And the family wanted to hold it in early spring so out-of-town guests could make the trip to Bend, Oregon, without concern for weather.
Ellen had planned the service herself, choosing the hymns and the prayers and talking to Pastor Nancy about the pastor’s eulogy and with her brother-in-law who also spoke. As with everything Ellen did in life, it was organized and tasteful.
I teared up a little, while my friend, Steve, sobbed quietly at the beginning before calming himself.
Sadly, I have been to several funerals and memorial services in recent years. That comes with age, I guess. All are different. My friend David’s service was classically Jewish. My mother-in-law’s service was a full Catholic Mass. My mother, on the other hand, wanted no memorial service. We simply spread her ashes at the beach. There have been others. Some mournful. Some celebratory.
All different. And all the same.
During Ellen’s service, as I rested my hand on my friend’s shoulder, I saw, not for the first time, the commonality among all those memorials and funerals.
In that simple Bend sanctuary, surrounded by Ellen’s family and friends, the love was palpable, thick, like a warm mist in the room.
Ellen is gone. The container holding her ashes was proof of that. But the love she had for those in that room and the love they had for her could be felt, literally. Love tempered sorrow because in that love, she was very much alive still.
In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, we say “may their memory be a blessing.”
I like that phrase, far better than “I am so sorry,” or, “please accept my condolences.”
Yes, death is a sad thing. And grieving family and friends deserve sympathy and condolences.
But it is in our memories that we truly celebrate life. I can express sympathy for the grieving. But it is more important, I believe, to hope for the blessing of good memories that keep loved ones alive for us, in us.
Last week’s memorial service for my friend brought that point home once again.
The service was properly emotional. But before and after, as friends and family gathered, the conversation focused on memories of Ellen.
There was talk of her work for the Forest Service, as a ranger at Mt. Rainier, as a guide at the Statue of Liberty.
There was talk of her commitment to the outdoors, her founding of a women’s ski group, and of the many book clubs she started.
There was talk of her 40-plus years as an elementary-school teacher and of the hundreds of students she taught and loved.
And there was talk of her life with Steve and their two children, a life spent in the world’s great cities, a life of travel and adventure.
Long after the service ended, those memories will sustain those who live after.
Death comes to all of us. In the end, some of us can provide a material legacy. A very, very few live on in history.
For the rest of us our legacy is the memories we leave behind. That is our immortality. Ellen’s service was for me a timely reminder. May her memory be a blessing, always.