Memorial Service

Louise and I are spending most of Saturday on Bainbridge Island attending a memorial service for our friend John, who died after a four year battle with cancer. Memorial services — unless you believe in the kind of afterlife where dead people lurk just outside our perceptual range and hover over us, taking pleasure in how they are remembered — are for the living. Certain things, like the occasional whining we all do, are best done alone. Grief is best done in a community of caring.

My late husband Jerry had a beautiful memorial service, held in the University of Rochester Interfaith Chapel — the studiously neutral setting sidestepping the fact that our family spanned both rosary-clutching Irish Catholics and conservative Jews. Free of either Jesus on the cross or torah scrolls, we were able to construct the setting in which people who loved Jerry could share their memories and their sadness. A friend who is a jazz musician played Jerry’s favorite, composer Paul Desmond’s Take Five — often played by the jazz group who first recorded it, the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Jerry’s younger sister Amy talked about Jerry as her big brother. Ralph, our longtime corporate attorney, talked about Jerry as a colleague and friend. Matt talked about Jerry as a dad. Many others spoke as well. I didn’t — it would have been too hard. But I was profoundly touched by the words of everyone who did.

The impulse for closure when there is a death, the chance to say good-bye, is a deep human need. I can’t imagine how one comes to terms with loss when there is no opportunity to close the circle of life, when those left behind don’t know what happened to a loved one, don’t even know whether the person is alive or dead — just that he or she is gone.

John was a vice president at WSU, and there will be many professional colleauges speaking about him. I’m not one, which is fine. I saw John less than a month before he died, playing with his small grandson. I’m glad I had that moment. If I were speaking, I’d say that John was a good and decent man, a rare intellect, a friend and neighbor that you could call on with trust that he’d respond, a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. He was a good steward of the precious gift of life, and like all who loved him, I wish fate had granted him a bit more time.

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