My friend Harry just turned 90. He still goes to work every day, plays contract bridge at the Master level all over the country, and keeps a busy social calendar. Last week, his nearest and dearest gathered at a resort to celebrate his milestone, but the treat was not in the sand or palm trees. It was in Harry’s glistening eyes. His children had reached out to all the people who had every known their dad, and asked them to record a memory of him, or a blessing he brought them, or some challenge they navigated together. Our careful instructions were to turn our phones sideways, press record, and speak for no more than one minute. The result was over three hours of heartfelt greetings, which the whole gang watched into the wee hours of the morning. Harry didn’t fall asleep until 3:00.
You wouldn’t call the preparations easy—the day was weeks in the making—but a son’s tossed off comment anchored everybody’s efforts. He said in the lead-up, “I don’t want to spend more time planning PopPop’s funeral than we do on this party.” It struck all of us how often we miss the opportunity to say, “Thank you” and “I love you.” “Wouldn’t it be great if we could hear our own eulogies,” my friend remarked, as we debriefed their experience with Harry.
I mentioned that I had conducted two funerals for individuals who were still alive. Both celebrations involved complicated logistics, including international travel. Lives were rearranged when it seemed death was imminent, airline tickets purchased, and the services planned. And then the grandpas rallied! So once in New Jersey and another time in Delaware, we rolled the unlikely guests of honor to the front of the church, arranged blankets and hearing devices, and conducted their memorial services for them. There were tears and laughter, and in both cases we agreed how much sense it made to convey appreciation when our loved ones were still in the room. Both fellows died within the week, so the assembled families got to have closure, as well.
Author Marion Winik writes, “In times of intense grief, I have tried all the usual methods of escape—distraction, compensation, intoxication; therapies and treatments and antidotes for body and soul. I once had a massage from a woman named Chaka that unleashed a hurricane of tears. Ultimately, instead of attempting to flee the pain of loss, I decided to spend time with it, to linger, to let these thoughts and feelings bloom inside me into something else.” Her gift to herself, to us, and to the people she’s lost is The Baltimore Book of the Dead, a collection of essays that capture, in 400 words or less, a loved one’s essence. “People do not pass away. They die and then they stay,” Winik quotes as her book begins.
I am inviting the congregation to get their hands on a copy of Winik’s book, at The Ivy Bookstore or the library or online, and to read it with me over Lent. We’ll discuss it together on Sunday, March 24 after the 10:00 service. Between now and then, enjoy her collection of characters, and then I invite you to take it a step further. First, write an essay in Winik’s style about someone who has died, 400 words or less, not mentioning the person by name, instead giving him/her a distinctive title, as she does. (See “The Camp Director,” “My Advisor,” “The All-American,” “The Southern Gentleman.”) Write the essay for yourself and your loved one, and bring it on March 24th if you’d like to share it.
Second, I invite you to take a page out of Harry’s family book, and write a short essay about someone you care about who is still living. Give it an evocative title, as well, which captures the person’s essence. Then make a date, and over coffee, read your essay to the person you’ve written about. Why wait to offer your thanks until after he or she has died?