Reflecting on Memorials

And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on glory’s side…and
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live! – Chris Rice

My assistant of more than 15 years, Melissa Terry, experienced the death of her mother this past week. The memorial was on Monday, April 13. I have never liked attending funerals. It has nothing to do with the person who died, but they remind me too much of our limits as human beings. There is an end to this life. I am sure that statement seems obvious to you, but our entire culture pushes death to the side, ignores it and hopes science can find a process that will help us live just a little bit longer.

We got up on Monday morning and drove about an hour and a half to the little town of Warren near the Columbia River. There at the Grace Baptist Church the family had prepared a memorial to honor a wonderful mother and grandmother, La Vonne Blair. As you entered the sanctuary the music from Chris Rice’s song Come to Jesus was playing – it is soothing and haunting at the same time. The service was well attended, and when the family entered the room together you knew that this was a strong, largely extended family group. The service began with the minister noting, as is common in Christian memorials, that “We are not a people who have lost hope.” Perhaps these words captured the tenor of the memorial: “She loved church. She loved the old hymns. She guided the family in truth and in the ways of God.” I do not know what you would like said at your memorial, but I am not sure one could do much better.

The grandchildren provided some of the greatest insights into La Vonne Blair. Erin talked about how they consistently said goodbye by singing Frank Sinatra’s famous song together, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Carson compared his grandmother to a field of blackberries – “prickly at times but the fruit of deep relationship was well worth the effort to discover.” Ian noted that death provides the unique opportunity to reach into your heart and touch deep within you. His heart had been touched by a grandmother who showed a deep love that was most powerful during the hard times. They were wonderful memories, all clearly the result of a woman who made Christ and relationships the most important thing in her life. As I listened I was reminded of C. S. Lewis’ assessment of one great saint in heaven: “There is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.” And so it is with La Vonne Blair.

Why a comment on memorials and funerals by a university president? Our present culture wishes to leave all of the past behind as it strives onward to “greater heights.” We have become people of the moment looking to the future – confident that we are much better than those who have preceded us. Universities like George Fox exist to remind us that this claim is not true. What we now “possess” as a culture is built on the past.

As a young man I grew up in small towns in the West. My grandfathers were farmers; my parents teachers. They held fast to old virtues – Christian faith, hard work, sacrifice, courage and honor (among many). One of the things they consistently taught me was respect for those who were older, and in particular for those who had died. I often remember funeral processions coming down a street we were driving on. Whether it was my father or grandfather, their reaction was always the same. They pulled the car over and stopped (often times they got out and stood by the car). When I asked why, they always said it was the respect due someone who had died and left this world. It was a reminder that our lives are limited. It did not matter that you did not know them – respect was given.

Our culture too often “speeds” by funeral processions and memorials in its efforts to get to the future. I won’t soon forget a Monday in April when we paused to pay tribute to a life well lived. I was reminded that I had not “stopped” in a long time to reflect on the most important things in life. My grandfathers and father would be pleased that I have remembered an essential lesson from my childhood.

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One Response to Reflecting on Memorials

  1. Verne Martin says:

    Dr Baker,

    I am always glad when I read something that you have written about a deep subject such as the death of saint. You do such a good job of putting into words the feelings that many of us have but cannot express. Thank you!