Archived Story

Memorials important to human experience

Published 12:10pm Saturday, May 25, 2013

I’ve attended two services this week for people who have died.

Earlier this week, I had the honor of serving as a chalice bearer at my good friend Harry Slyhoff’s funeral at St. James’ Episcopal Church. Thursday night I went to a visitation in Montgomery to honor Billy Chesser, whose daughter Mitzi Waldo is a close friend.

That certainly doesn’t make me an expert on memorial services, but in two of the past four days, I’d spent lots of time thinking about those who have gone before us.

When I was young, I used to dread going to funerals. It was uncomfortable, facing the death of others and the sadness that came with death. I wanted to get out of the church, or the cemetery, or the funeral home as fast as possible, to shed the experience as quickly as I shed my hot coat and tight tie and stiff black shoes and to get back into the more comfortable places and clothes of everyday life.

While attending a funeral service is still a bit uncomfortable, I have realized that my old attitude was all wrong. I was putting the focus on me, not on what is important.

I’ve come to understand that memorials and funerals play a deeply meaningful part in the human experience. We all want to be remembered, to have an effect on the world after we’ve passed from it. Memorial services help us do that.

This week it’s been very obvious to me that while the actual funeral or memorial service is held because someone died, much of the value of the service is to the living. It’s a time for people who were connected by the deceased person to gather, to express our sympathies, to share stories that celebrate the lives of those who died and to keep their memory alive.

A memorial service helps us create a common experience, a “marker” of sorts.

I’ve been struck this week by how much of the memorial services were filled with joy. It’s a bittersweet joy, of course, but the hugs and laughs and smiles and tears helped renew and strengthen friendships.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I realized that our porch could be a dangerous place. It’s elevated above our concrete-floored carport, and we have a wooden porch swing that, if you really get it swinging, can reach out over the carport. It occurred to us that if a small child were to walk behind the swing when it was moving, it could knock him off the porch and onto the concrete carport six feet below.

The porch is held up by brick columns and wrought iron supports. So we called Harry, who worked with Robinson Iron, and asked him if he would take a look at the porch and suggest what we could do to make it more safe.

A few days later, we walked outside and to our great surprise saw a beautiful wrought iron fence had been welded into place behind our porch swing. There was a “wet paint” sign on it. Nothing else. We called Harry and thanked him profusely and tried to compensate him for installing the railing. He wouldn’t accept any payment, saying only, “You took some photos of my daughters once that meant the world to us.”

I won’t ever forget that. Harry’s unsolicited gift that day was a gift twice given. He gave us a beautiful railing. But more importantly he gave me a tangible example of how to treat others. This week, during his funeral and in the days leading up to it, I heard similar stories told by many of Harry’s friends. And that experience will keep Harry alive to me, as a role model. His life will affect mine for years to come.

Monday is set aside as Memorial Day, a day to remember those who have died in service for the U.S. armed forces. It’s not just a time to spend a Monday on the lake or eating barbecue. It’s a time to remember those who have died in our service and to keep their actions and memories alive as we go forward with our own lives.

Boone is publisher of The Outlook.