Dad Helped Plan His Memorial Service

We had a memorial service for my dad.

He helped plan the shindig. He picked the songs for the video slideshow, asked me to speak, and requested that his older sister, Kathy, co-lead the service. Dad requested that his grandsons play music. And he did not want a viewing. He wanted to be cremated.

He had a hand in the whole thing. It was one of the strange gifts of cancer, the time to talk about the ending.

Honestly, I’m sad that he wasn’t able to attend. I think he would have had a nice time.

My favorite moment was when my youngest son came up to me during the after-service reception and sweetly said, “Momma, there are cookies here. Do you want a cookie?”

In a moment of decadence, I said, “Oh, yes. Bring me one of every kind.” I didn’t know that it was a cookie buffet and that there were easily twenty plates of cookies laid out neatly on long church dining tables.

The Cookie Buffet

Dutifully, my dear child returned with a mischievous grin and presented me with a plate of cookies piled twenty high.

I accepted his challenge. For the remainder of the reception, I ate gobs of cookies from a mountainous plate while I chatted with my dead father’s friends. I’m sure I spilled some. The plate was too full for me to notice and too unwieldy for me to stoop down to retrieve anything from the floor. It is possible that I left a trail of cookies marking my path like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs. I do feel a bit sorry for the church janitor who no doubt had to do some deep vacuuming that night.

People accept mildly crazy behavior from bereaved family members during memorial services.

When I was in junior high, I went to a memorial service for my flute teacher, Mrs. Fulkerth. She also died of cancer. She was young and had children my age and younger—they all had very interesting names that started with “J.”

Mrs. Fulkerth had long dark hair that she wore in intricate braided buns, like a real-life Princess Leia. She was one of the most beautiful people that I interacted with during my childhood. She was very kind and a great flute player.

What to Wear at the Memorial Service

Her husband, Jeff, was devastated by her death. He walked into the memorial service several minutes late wearing pink shorts and an old tee-shirt. He seemed disoriented and looked disheveled. Everyone else was sitting politely, wearing church clothes. His out-of-place appearance made a significant impression on me because church clothes were a big deal in my family. Shorts in church were an absolute no-no and I couldn’t quite understand why the man who seemed to love Mrs. Fulkerth so much couldn’t manage to put on pants.

I turned to my dad and asked him why Jeff was dressed like that. My dad was not a deeply tender person, but he had tears in his eyes when he said, “When someone’s wife dies, they can wear whatever they want. No one worries about their clothes.”

That was the first time that I realized that grief necessitates the bending of some social rules. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that there is only one important rule for memorials: Get through them.

Dad Would Have Laughed

I took that to heart with the cookies. When your dad dies, you can eat as many cookies as you want. My dad was no longer around to tell me not to. There were no glaring looks from across the room with the menacing dad face that says, “You’re going to ruin your dinner.”

I was unaware of anyone feeling concerned or phased by my giant tower of cookies. It would have made my dad laugh. And it made me laugh. And brought me a much-needed source of distraction. I had lots of conversations about my cookie pile that afternoon.

Memorial Service Pastor Disaster

The worst part of the service was the pastor. He was a member of the staff at the church where we held the service, the church that my parents attended together for most of their adult lives. The pastor wasn’t supposed to give a sermon, he was just supposed to welcome the community.

My dad did not request a sermon and not everyone in our family is a Christian, so a welcome from the pastor seemed like a nice nod to the tradition without the ordeal feeling too churchy. I should also mention that my aunt is an ordained minister, and that I am a seminary graduate with a master’s degree in theology and significant preaching experience. We had it pretty well covered in terms of formal religious training.

I suppose the wishes of the dead do not fluster a man of God who’s on a roll. The man went on and on about the notes that he found in my dad’s old Bible. He tried to tell a story about my dad’s legacy, the legacy of a man he hardly knew.

At one point he called him Tom. My dad’s name was Tim.

Coming Home

That was the low point.

I was furious. I did my best to control my impulse to shift around in my seat, sigh loudly, or just blatantly roll my eyes. It was the part of the memorial service that I just had hold my breath and get through.

Despite the pastor mishap, I’m glad that we held a service for my dad. He wanted one. He lived his entire adult life in the same small city, and it felt right that we share his death and our grief with the many people that he’d played racquetball with, met at the gym during the early morning hours, worked alongside, and sat next to in the pews. The ability to gather with others who’d known him over the years, felt like an important part of the process. My childhood friends came. I recognized many of my father’s friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen since my wedding day.

I moved away from my hometown when I was seventeen and I never went back to live there, just the occasional month or two between trips and jobs while I was in college. Having a funeral there, in that church, with that group of people felt like an important return home. Even if it was a return home to say good-bye. It was an important ritual.

No Formal Service for Brother

We did not have a formal memorial service for my brother. He died by suicide six month after my dad’s death.

It was too soon. We’d just done the rig-a-ma-roll with out-of-town relatives, caterers and printed obituaries. My mom was clear. She didn’t want an event to grieve Dave. She wanted quiet and privacy.

About two months after he died, my remaining family came to visit Minnesota. That is when we planned a private memorial. My mom, my brother Dan, my husband and I, and our children doubled up on paddleboards and paddled out onto the lake on a bright July morning.

It is the lake in Minneapolis very near to my home and where Dave spent lots of time. When he didn’t have work or treatment meetings, he’d ride his bike to my house, saunter into the kitchen and ask if he could borrow a board. He’d hustle it across the street to the lake and spend the afternoon floating. For hours. He seemed to find tremendous peace there.

A Different Kind of Memorial Service

We retraced his path and paddled out to the center of the lake before 8:00 on a Saturday morning. The July sun was bright and the lake was perfectly still. We joined our paddleboards into a single floating mass. We each released a fresh flower, a handful of Dave’s ashes and shared a memory or spoke a loving word about Dave.

I don’t remember what anyone else said. But I remember thinking that every word was perfect and that the children were deeply wise and that my mom was beautiful and brave. I couldn’t get many words out. I think I said something simple like, “I miss you. Thank you for being so kind.”

It was very precious to me. I’m glad that we did it that way.

We knew ourselves well enough to know that no number of cookies was going to get us through a formal event. Church clothes were too much. Frankly, clothes were too much. We wanted to honor him together, but the traditions weren’t nurturing in this case, so we made a different plan.

There are no hard and fast rules about memorial services. I believe that some type of ritual or gathering is essential for grieving, but it certainly doesn’t have to be the traditional church deal. The two services were very different. Both were perfect and both were flawed but I’m very glad we listened to our hearts about what was helpful.

Learn more about the author’s work at Sherry Walling, PhD.

Read another Sherry Walling article on Open to Hope: I’m Joining the Circus: Movement is Healing – Open to Hope


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Sherry Walling

Dr. Sherry Walling helps high achieving people navigate painful and complex experiences. She is a clinical psychologist, podcaster, author, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate. Her forthcoming book, Touching Two Worlds, will be published by Sounds True in July of 2022. Part memoir, part reflection on her years as a trauma psychologist, Dr. Walling explores grief in the aftermath of losing her father to cancer and brother to suicide. Her podcast, ZenFounder, has been called a “must listen” by both Forbes and Entrepreneur Magazine and has been downloaded more than 1,000,000 times. Dr. Walling is an expert in trauma, stress and burnout and her research has been published in academic journals such as the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Her work is informed by the “street smarts” of someone who has lived a lot of life. She's experienced poverty, grown wealth, been an athlete, bagged groceries, travelled the world, spent a year in West Africa, had children, sat with dying people, and spent time with people from all walks of life. Dr. Walling is graduate of the University of California, Davis and Fuller School of Psychology. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and master’s degrees in both psychology and theology. She completed research fellowships at Yale University School of Medicine and the National Center for PTSD in Boston. She’s held teaching appointments 5 academic institutions including the University of California, San Francisco, and Boston University School of Medicine. Sherry and her husband, Rob, reside in Minneapolis with their children. She teaches yoga classes, loves to paddleboard, and has been known to occasionally perform as a circus aerialist.

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