A RATIONAL & POETIC DEATH
( It’s How You Lived That Counts )
Perspective – I’m writing this almost a year after the death of my son Rob – bringing together thoughts expressed at the funeral and from the passage of time.
My wife Suzie and I arrived at the Funeral Home early – at the same time as son Paul, his wife Merav, and their twin seven year old daughters Sigal and Talya.
I was placing flowers on each side of the urn and a nice early photo of Rob, when I discovered the two girls standing beside me. “What are you doing Grandpa?” I decided to tell the truth.
“Well …uh … the body of your uncle Rob after he died was placed in a special oven for people who have died and his ashes are in this urn. It’s called cremation, and when people die, they are either cremated or their body is buried in a casket – where you also turn to earth or ashes, but more slowly.”
“OK Grandpa. Thank you.”
I watched them skip away.
Their mother Merav called us a couple of days later about the family conversation on the drive home. She had asked the girls, “What was the most meaningful part of the funeral to each of you?” Sigal piped up. “I liked the urn. I don’t want to be buried. I want to be ‘laminated’ like Uncle Rob.” Talya chimed in matter-of-factly, “But it doesn’t matter, Mom; you turn to ashes either way.”
She’s right. It doesn’t matter how you’re buried. It’s how you lived that counts.
The Memorial – The memorial gathering was for close family and friends. The first part of the service was mainly a “Humanist Memorial” with the father, the brothers, and sisters reading a few words or telling a story about Rob. After the Humanist Memorial, a break in the service was followed by Christian prayer and expressions of faith for traditional religious family and friends who wished to stay on
The “Remembrance” By His Father (excerpts from 2/05/08) – Several years ago, as his heart began to fail, Rob grew angry with the unfairness of approaching death and took out that anger on those around him. His actions resulted in a divorce that was not his wife Pam’s fault.
After the divorce, for the sake of their children, they worked closely together to maximize the time Rob had with Brittany and Trenton. Most weeks he came over twice to cook supper, and he was a good cook. The weekend before his death he made plans with Pam to have them all go ice fishing, but his heart wouldn’t let him put one foot in front of the other.
Other’s today will speak of his recent years and also his years as a younger man. I hope they won’t leave out the mischievous years… I mean sometimes his life was an example of what not to do. But I’m going to speak about his first year of life in a German orphanage – that effected his entire life..
Suzie and I lived in Germany from 1961 to 63 where I taught the children of army personnel at a U.S. tank base near the Czech boarder. Germany was still in post war poverty, their economy in shambles and orphanages understaffed . Many buildings were still pock marked from shells.
Before we came back to the states, we adopted two Bavarian kids. Michael was lucky. We got him shortly after he was born – so he spent no time in their terrible “children’s homes”.
Rob on the other hand (at one year of age when we got him) was badly undernourished. His legs were bent from rickets. The bone in his thumb was exposed from sucking to comfort himself. At that time, babies in those German “kinderheims” were seldom picked up. They were left in their cribs and bottles just propped in their mouths.
At age 10, our doctor found Rob had a serious heart murmur – very likely caused by the undernourishment in his first year. So much of our destiny is in the hands of fate. “Time and chance happen to us all”… but good fortune does not fall to us equally.
So, what can we learn from Rob’s life ? What can he teach us… besides that life isn’t always fair? Especially in these last several years, he triumphed over adversity. His children know he loved them. He taught them to appreciate nature – what a valuable lesson. He taught us all courage in facing death.
But what is the main message? Humanists distinguish between beliefs of faith and judgment from sound evidence. We hold that no one has the right to judge others on ancient beliefs in the supernatural, but only on clear evidence of good or harm – as in science or a modern court of law. Likewise we judge the world around us, including death, on what we see. Our community of reason, does not believe in a virtual life after death. We accept the evidence of the grave.
Our legacy and afterlife lies in our children, our work, the values we pass on, and whatever we have done to make this a better world. That is the main message I hope to leave with you.
There are many versions of the following poem that also carry that message. It’s generally attributed to Mary Frye, and probably addressed to a German Jewish friend in 1932. It is also possibly American Indian in origin or similar to one of their death verses. Here is my Humanist version.
Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there,
but in values that I taught and your good memories.
Memories that come with softly falling snow
and a thousand winds that blow.
Memories that come in fields of ripened grain
and gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in mornings hush, I’ll be
the swift uplifting rush of birds in circled flight.
I’ll be the starshine of the night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there,
but in my children and the work I’ve done,
and your good memories.