On Writing That Last Story

25 Jun 2005
June 25, 2005

Funeral celebrants are part of a persistent move toward therapy and management to handle issues that used to be the realm of religious faith.

Dennis Martin
Associate Professor of Historical Theology
Loyola University Chicago

When Cliff died unexpectedly at 39 I went to his funeral. I wasn’t looking forward to it. He was young and left a wife and an eight-year-old daughter. It was shocking and I faced my own mortality.

Funerals are for the living I’ve been told: a way for us to come to terms with our loved one’s death. Cliff’s death, however, would be particular hard to accept. When someone in their 80s, or even better in their 90s dies their funeral is indeed a celebration of a long and hopefully happy life. But this was way too soon.

In the middle of the service people were invited to the pulpit to express their remembrances. I didn’t know Cliff well and these stories made him come alive for me. When Cliff’s wife Leila walked up to the chancel she began by saying “I wasn’t going to speak today but I’m about to tell you an inappropriate story about Cliff.” My ears perked up. Cliff apparently had a wicked sense of humor and Leila proceeded to clue us in. It was relief to the sadness of this very solemn occasion. It made me wish I had known him better.

I marveled at Leila’s where-with-all. To be able to tell a funny story about her newly departed husband was more than just an art. It required a faith and resolve I was surely lacking. I couldn’t have done that.

If you don’t think you could have either consider employing the services of a Funeral Celebrant, a hired emcee “and part of a new, increasingly popular twist in the way the dead are memorialized.” “For a practicing Catholic, it would be like replacing a priest with a therapist and manager,” said Dennis Martin, associate professor of historical theology at Loyola University Chicago.

This reminded me of my father’s funeral a few years ago. But when hiring outsiders to eulogize your relatives make sure they get the facts of their life correct.

When my father died I flew to Los Angeles for his funeral. His death was not unexpected and by the time I arrived my father’s wife had made all the arrangements. He didn’t belong to a synagogue so the funeral home provided a rabbi for his service. Just before his burial we met with him to go over the details of my father’s life. We thought we had clearly stated his accomplishments. The rabbi jotted notes as we spoke. But at the grave, things seemed to unravel.

The rabbi stood in front of the coffin and recalled my father’s life. His style was intimate. But his facts weren’t quite how we had described them to him. “He went to the University of Michigan…” “Michigan State” I whispered from the front row. “He went to Michigan State” he said without missing a beat. It was truly a Jewish recovery.

“After the war he attended UCLA where he got a degree in Engineering.” “He went to USC,” I said a little louder. “He attended USC,” he intoned. We used to chide each other, usually during football season about the rivalry between our alma maters (I went to UCLA). My stepmother began to squirm in her seat.

I pointed my finger at my father’s coffin and said “That’s what you get for going to that OTHER school!” It was one of the few “last words” I ever got with my father and one I could have only delivered spontaneously and unrehearsed. Everyone laughed. The rabbi continued.

“And he is survived by his first wife Betty.” “NO!” everyone said in unison. Someone put their hand on my stepmother’s shoulder. No, Betty died thirty years ago. “Wait,” the rabbi said. “You’re his second wife?” pointing at her. In a twist of fate, this hired rabbi had grown up with my mother some 60 years ago. And, it seemed he couldn’t get her out of his mind. It was truly a Seinfeldian moment. Was that Jerry, Elaine, and George standing behind Dad’s coffin?

I couldn’t have orchestrated a more fitting conclusion to my father’s life. He tried so hard to do it his way. While he was alive he was controlling and totally unaware of its effects on his family. But in death life has a way of making those important decisions for you.

A professional eulogizer –a funeral celebrant– couldn’t have done it better.

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1 reply
  1. Lavinia Weissman says:

    I was standing in Terminal C at Logan airport, waiting for a departing Jet Blue flight with my daughter and her boyfriend, when I heard the boyfriend on his cell. “Grandma .. you are just cracking me up.” He was talking to her as she sat watch by Grandpa’s death bed.
    This was such a new experience for me. That someone could love their husband so much and show it to her grown grandson by cracking jokes and being alive. She had told him earlier that week, she had cried her tears and continued to have her moments and that at the same time there was still much more of life to live.
    This was my first experience being around a loving family at the time of a death, an experience I have never had.

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