Linda, a woman I knew only slightly (from an exercise class we both attended a few years ago) died last week after a two year fight against lung cancer. She called it “passing” and towards the end she was looking forward to being in an eternally better place.

She was a gal whose life had been challenging from the git-go. Poverty, bad marriages, poor health, kids with drug problems, grandkids who needed her care – on and on. Her siblings weren’t much better off.

In 2001 she began working in the accounting office at the YWCA– a local social services agency with a big heart – and finally felt safe and appreciated. When she got sick they kept her on through her many treatments. When she died they were the ones who offered to put together the memorial service because they knew the family couldn’t pull it off.

This was where I came in. My friends at the Y knew I had conducted several marriage ceremonies and assumed it would be no big deal to officiate at a memorial service. I had attended a number of Unitarian memorial services (something, by the way, that they do more meaningfully than any other religious organization) but her folks were a mix of unchurched and fundamentalist Christian… how would I pull that off?

Internet to the rescue. Found some great readings and some ideas for organizing the order of service while the Y staff pulled together the food and flowers. The service was yesterday afternoon.

I delivered my opening words, sniveling into my hankie every couple of sentences (not exactly professional!) but the effect of having the minister so weepy must have given the family members permission to come up to the mike without worrying about weeping themselves, because speak and weep they did.

For a group that hadn’t wanted to do anything, didn’t want to say anything, they truly opened up. By the end of the hour this sprawling brawling family had really come together through their mourning, their stories and their memories of Linda.

Her sister said, “I only wish Linda didn’t have to pass in order for us to get together like this. She would have loved this.”

For me the takeaway is that memorial services (or celebrations of life, as I prefer to call them) are REALLY important. It’s a tremendous opportunity for telling the stories that allow for grieving, healing and community building. Even if the dying person says “I don’t want a service,” it’s not for them; it’s for the folks who are left behind.

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