Lately, I’ve been thinking about writing a eulogy for me. It’s not that I’m hearing choirs of angels singing my name, nor do I have any desire to leave now or to heap praises on the protagonist of my humble life. We all know that we need to think about getting our affairs in order, to think about wills, and life insurance, about our final wishes and passing on our passwords to those who have to close out our accounts. It’s something we do for those we leave behind. Still, there will likely be some unfinished business at the end, and a piece of that is a eulogy. There will likely also be some things that have been left unsaid.
My mother died suddenly one morning of a massive heart attack. There was so much that I would have liked to have been able to say to her, so much I would have loved to hear from her. My father survived 20 years of cancer, and shortly before he succumbed, I had the chance to tell him how much I loved him and to thank him for all he had done for me in his lifetime. Through a haze of pain and morphine, and struggling with the effort, he muttered “Is there something you need me to say?” and I was able to answer, “No, you’ve said it all.” I may be in search of that sense of closure and of having left nothing unsaid. I may also be looking to make my celebration a truly personal and meaningful one.
I once attended a funeral where the pastor actually used the wrong first name for the deceased. Though painful for the family, it’s understandable how that could happen. Sometimes, unchurched people bring their loved one to God in the end. Sometimes active church members relocate to warmer climates or care facilities and fade from active church life and peoples’ memories.
At another service, the priest recited some biographical details about my neighbor’s life, a man who was renowned for his kindness and widely loved and respected, and I listened, wondering whether these facts were how this man would have wanted to be remembered. A family member read a list of hastily gathered memories, and this somehow came a little closer to reminding us all of who this person really was.
As we move through life, the family we know, and the friends we meet at work, in church or in community settings only see fragments of our lives, like a series of frames from a feature-length film. What then would provide a more complete picture of the whole person? Surely, it’s not born in worked at survived by.
As I thought about what words I would prefer to have read at my funeral, I realized that they had nothing to do with what might, without my input, be listed as my “accomplishments” — whether I had won an award or written a book or flown in a corporate jet. I wanted instead for people to know the things about me that I truly valued, the things that I thought defined me and that quite possibly only God knew about me; that my favorite childhood memory was walking through the woods in search of wildflowers; that I sometimes dropped pennies on sidewalks hoping someone would find them and feel lucky; that tears still came to me at the thought of my daughter’s birth or my mother’s death; that I worked at forgiveness and considered it the hardest thing to do; that I wasn’t always proud of everything I did but was more critical of myself than anyone else; that a friend once said I was a born contemplative, and I considered it the highest compliment I ever received; that my husband said that he never knew anyone with more patience with people and less with machines, and I knew he was right about the machines.
I wanted people to know me as having passed through this life as one of God’s children, not as a citizen of the world, not even as a baptized Christian, or life-long Lutheran. It would only need a few sentences.
I also thought about the opportunity to get in a few last words. How wonderful it would be to have one last opportunity to finally ask forgiveness from all whom I might ever have wronged or slighted, knowingly or unknowingly in hopes of relieving them of the burden of resentment.
How delightful to cast a broad net of thanks to all who ever lent me a hand or rendered a kind word in a time of trial! It might seem odd to hear words from one just passed, but they would have been words written in life, words I would have liked to say to those who knew me well enough to come to say goodbye and celebrate my victory of life over death. It might be in the form of a list, or maybe a letter. It would make things easier for my family and for the pastor, and it would make my funeral uniquely mine.
I will do it, but God willing, I will still be around for a while. As my grandson once said, extending my life to biblical durations, “Nana, you still have a good 20 or 30 or 40 years left, right?” Yes, my darling, I have eternity, but let me leave you with some words before I go and until we meet again.
Helen Isolde Thomas is a member of St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Geneseo, N.Y.