Recently I attended a memorial service for my sister. She died about a month ago. I was sad the day I learned the news, but had largely come to terms with her death. I didn't expect the service to be a laugh-fest, but its rather gloomy nature surprised me.
Religion seemingly was to blame. My sister wasn't at all religious, but the memorial service was held at a funeral chapel that reeked of religiosity.
Walking in with my wife and brother-in-law, we were met by the black-suited proprietor who gravely, so to speak, said: "I'm so sorry for the pain of your loss" (or words to that effect).
That downer of a greeting struck me as strange.
Not wholly unexpected, or wildly inappropriate, but simply a bit presumptuous. What if we were expecting to celebrate the memory of my sister happily and joyously? -- which is a lot closer to what I was anticipating than dark gloom and sorrow.
I haven't been to many funerals or memorial services. My wife, Laurel, recalled that when her friend Mark died, there was a lot of laughter and smiles at his service. She said, "When I go, I want upbeat music to be played."
Here's what I don't understand about the Christian attitude toward death: signs on the funeral chapel wall had quotes from the Bible about how dying isn't the end of a person's existence, but the beginning of a fresh life with God and Jesus.
If that's the case, then why the doom and gloom? Why the somberness? Why the hushed, formal, depressing atmosphere?
Thankfully, a minister who didn't know my sister (she never belonged to a church, or even attended a service so far as I can recall) put as positive a spin as he could on death in his remarks that kicked off the minimally ceremonious ceremony.
He spoke about there being a time for everything, death included, quoting from the famous passage to that effect in the bible. I can't remember much else he said, as it was mostly platitudinous -- understandable when you don't know the person being memorialized.
The atmosphere improved considerably when he asked if anyone wanted to share some memories of my sister, Carol Ann.
A woman who was an old friend of Carol Ann and her husband rose, walked to the podium, and read prepared remarks into the microphone. She was crying at first, but later regained some composure.
She told some moving stories. Up to that point I wasn't sure whether I wanted to speak myself. I had some scribbled notes in my jacket pocket. Halfway through the woman's talk I grabbed the piece of paper, having decided to say my own piece.
I'd written the notes on a Horizon flight from Portland to Oakland. My wife and I didn't get seats next to each other. When my aisle mate sat down, the woman turned to me and said, "Are you having a good day?"
I didn't feel like explaining why I was traveling so simply replied, "Yes." But then the woman said, "I'm going to a memorial service."
"Small world," I told her. "So am I."
This led to a conversation that continued for almost the entire flight. It turned out that an old friend of hers had died of cancer, and she was going to a service in Walnut Creek, the same town my sister's service was being held in.
We covered a lot of philosophical, personal, and emotional ground in the two hours or so it took to fly from Oregon to California. Talking with her helped me solidify what I wanted to say at the service, if I had the opportunity.
When the minister thanked Carol Ann's friend and asked if anyone else wanted to say something, I raised my hand. He nodded at me. I stood at the podium and started with the small world story of my flight to Oakland.
Then I shared a dream that I had the night before. I was driving on a curvy road with a deep drop-off on the right (no guard rail). I took my eyes off the road for a moment. The rear wheels slipped off the edge of the pavement.
At first I wasn't worried. I figured that I could steer the car back on the road as I continued around the curve. But the rear wheels kept slipping backward. And the chasm kept looking deeper and more ominous.
Finally I knew that the car wasn't going to stay on the road. I thought, "This is the end." Then the dream itself ended. That wasn't the end my psyche had anticipated. It was death.
I told the group that we're all driving on a road -- life -- which is going to end in a precipitous drop-off one day. We don't know when that "crash" will come. And we don't know whether we'll survive it.
Almost certainly we won't, I said, acknowledging that many people believe in life after death (and feeling the religious eyes of the minister, who was sitting behind me, on my back).
"My sister didn't believe in that," I told the memorial service attendees. "Neither do I. So we're here for ourselves, not Carol Ann. She's dead. We're alive. Her death should teach us something about how to live life with more love, joy, and happiness. That's how we honor her -- by focusing on living, not dying."
I talked about regrets, how my sister did a lot and accomplished a lot that enabled her to die mostly regret-free. However, not totally. Her estrangement from her daughter and grandchildren hurt her. I looked at them and hoped they understood my next message.
"What we need to do, to say, to apologize for, to act upon -- that needs to be done today. Or at least as soon as possible. We think there's plenty of time to reconcile with loved ones, or tell those we care about how much they mean to us. But there may not be...time."
After I finished, the minister made some concluding remarks. He thanked me for what I'd said, observing that I'd hit on some key themes that he was planning to speak about. He ended by reading a passage about regrets that almost exactly echoed my thoughts.
It was nice to find common ground between his religiosity and my churchlessness. I shook the minister's hand after the service and told him that I liked his final remarks. Which were, basically, that now is the moment that always should mean the most.
Now is when we heal old wounds, open ourselves to the always-fresh possibilities of the present, perceive the magic of the mystery called life.
Looking into the minister's eyes, thanking him for helping make my sister's memorial service as positive as possible, I saw a human being trying to make sense of dying and living.
So was I. So are we all.
After the service most of the attendees went to a blessedly informal and upbeat gathering at a home of one of my sister's and brother-in-law's boating friends. Boat people like to eat and drink.
So do I. After imbibing some excellent bread, cheese, hummus, pinot noir, and coffee, I was in a considerably better mood.
Lots of people came up to me and said how much they appreciated my remarks. They liked how I captured Carol Ann's personality so well.
I'd observed that she was the sort of person who you'd want to help you return something that you didn't have a receipt for -- but she also could make me cringe when she waved a waiter over and started to complain about some relatively minor flaw with a restaurant meal.
Anyway, I ended my memorial service sharing by recalling one of my early memories of my sister, who was ten years older than me.
When she was 17, I was seven, the bratty little brother who sometimes got taken along in the back seat of a car when Carol Ann and her boyfriend were driving around in El Paso, Texas, where my mother lived for a while.
Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.
I told the people at the service that here's something all of us -- religious believers, agnostics, atheists -- can agree on.
Life happens. The present is, well, present. The future isn't. While we're living, we should be vibrantly alive. When we're dead, we'll either cease to exist (most likely) or live on in some fashion.
But we don't know which will happen until it happens. All we can do is live as authentically as possible.
Speaking at the memorial service, and hearing the positive feedback from people who appreciated my honesty, reaffirmed my commitment to open conversation about beliefs and lack of belief.
Deep down, most people know that they don't know the answers to whether God exists, life continues after death, and other Big Questions. Sharing our doubts and unknowing affirms our brother- and sisterhood with fellow humans.
(Here's a photo of Carol Ann and her husband, Bob, that I took when they visited our home in 2005.)