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August 28, 2011

Ways in Which the Service Truly Serves

Program design & background photo, Ysabel de la Rosa. Angel photo Stefan Davidson, iStock Photo.
I spoke with someone recently who said that, in the event of her husband or another family member dying before she did, she would have them buried the day after they died. She said she would not be able to stand the "stress" of planning a service and waiting more than 24 hours for it to take place. I understand that everyone has different emotional needs, but based on my experience, I often recommend to friends and family that they take their time when planning  a loved one's funeral or memorial service.  Once your loved one is dead, what's the point of hurrying or treating the service as one more emergency? The last "thing" we do connected to that person's life is to plan, attend, or conduct their funeral or memorial service. It's important, and it can be a deeply satisfying and healing experience.

I learned this not by planning. My mother died on 9/11, and we had to wait a full week for friends and family to be able to fly in. My father died close to the Fourth of July, and again, to accommodate others, we had to plan for a wait prior to the service. And I am so glad we did. These extra days gave us valuable time to consider all the elements we knew our parents wanted to include in their services.

The Gift of Time
It gave us time to wait for just the right flowers to be flown in for their caskets. It gave us time to locate old, old friends (not necessarily old in age) whom our parents had once had deep connections to. And, most important, it gave us time to make the service absolutely fitting for each of them. By the time my sister died, I knew to take our time planning her service. She had left specific instructions for us, and a few extra days gave us the time we needed to make everything as she wanted it. Even though her service lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes, it was so full of music, prayer, celebration, and memories, that the time flew by.

Last Friday I attended another wonderful memorial service. Again, due to circumstances, a little more than a month had passed before the memorial service could take place. I don't usually mention names in my blog, but I'm making an exception today. If you've ever logged on to a Windows PC with Windows 7, then you have a connection to the person whose memorial service I attended. He was Richard Gaines Russell, the author of Fast Ethernet, and lead developer for Microsoft's Windows 7, among many other programs and projects. His funeral service was held in Seattle, about two weeks after his death from melanoma, and his memorial service was held August 26 in the town where he grew up.

Richard's parents are such close friends to me that I consider them family. The loss of their beautiful, kind and brilliant son at age 49 has been a source of great sadness for me. I was nervous about attending his memorial service. Was I going to cry my eyes out? Was it going to remind me of all my loved ones no longer present? Would it make me feel even sadder--or worse, hopeless, as the death of a child at any age can make us feel?

How glad I am I attended that service. Richard's mother had arranged tables with "artifacts" and photos from his childhood and career in the church foyer. There was a wooden race car he built at age 10, his Eagle Scout sash, his first batch of "wires" from early attempts to build mechanical things, including his own computers, and awards that Richard won. It was a delight to become acquainted, even briefly, with the magic childhood of a wonderful man.

The service itself included artfully delivered stories about Richard's life, from saving his sister from a runaway bronco, to teaching himself to rappel from the third-story rooftop of his childhood home, to praising God for getting fired from a job that wasn't right for him, to marriage to a wonderful woman, becoming a good father, and being recognized as an industry leader in his field. Several of Richard's high school and college friends read selected scriptures, interspersed among the memories delivered by minister and mother. A group sang hymns and two Lyle Lovett songs, a capella, prior to the service, their voices creating a sanctuary of sound within the architectural sanctuary.

Memory as Legacy and Life
At one point, the minister said: "We gather memories as a testament to the resurrected life."  The gathering of people and of memories will be our way of keeping Richard alive and in our hearts until we, too, pass from this life.

There was much more laughter than tears during this service--and lots of smiles. We celebrated a person who transformed the lives of others with his presence, and our joy at having known him simply overpowered our sadness during this special time of remembrance. The thoughtful and person-specific service offered a kind of comfort and healing that nothing else could quite have provided.

Something to Hold and to Guide
Another important element in a service is having a printed program. It helps organize the flow of the service, helps orient the audience, many of whom are from different faiths and backgrounds, and is an artifact of remembrance in and of itself that people can take with them.  It's also something good to send to friends and family members who cannot travel to a service. I had the honor of designing the program for Richard's memorial service. I have posted an image of the front of the program above.

I wrote an earlier post on transition.  A service can be such a help in the period of transition. It is worth waiting a few days after a loved one's passing to do it in a way that is the most healing possible. Some people I've talked to who did wait a few days have found that they were more rested and more able to draw both meaning and enjoyment from the service than if the service had been held just one or two days after the person's death.

It can be good not to be in a hurry to simply "get a service done." Give it time and space to take on the right kind of life to represent the life of the one you love. Taking a little extra time for planning the service can reduce stress, give more people time to arrive from out of town, and can provide you with the soul-deep satisfaction of having made a final and essential gift to your loved one: the most meaningful tribute possible to who they were.

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