A Fond Farewell

On a recent weekend, my wife Margaret and I attended a Quaker memorial service in Blacksburg, Va., for our late nephew-in-law, dead at 40. Heart attack. He was cremated three or four weeks before the memorial service was held. Quakers wait to memorialize their dead. Don’t know the rationale. No matter. This was the most impressive service of its kind that I’ve ever seen. About 140 people assembled in rows facing each other in a fairly large. square room at the meeting house. No preacher, no pulpit. No prayer, no benediction. The presider, if you can call him that (I think his title was “clerk”), simply announced that anybody who wished to say something about the deceased could stand and say it when he/she got ready, or not speak at all. Either was OK. In the space of an hour, ten or 12 did speak. They all used so nearly the same adjectives to describe the deceased that it was clear they knew him, and knew him well. All the remarks sounded earnest and heartfelt. It was very moving. What struck me most was how this differed from all the similar services I’ve attended in my lifetime; it had virtually no structure, or at most the simplest of structures; nobody tried to gild the lily, as they do in most eulogies. No high-flown phrases. No mention of an afterlife. Jesus Christ was not even mentioned. When the meeting ran its course, the “clerk” signaled the end by shaking hands with somebody sitting near him, at which signal all the mourners shook hands with somebody nearby, then all broke for a lunch in the meeting-house kitchen. This memorial seemed to derive its power from its lack of ritual. In a ritual, the emphasis is on howto do it; here the emphasis was on celebrating the life of a beloved husband, father, and friend. It was most impressive.

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