The Importance of the Memorial Service

Serving as a minister, grief counselor, and Hospice Chaplain over the past 17 years I have attended and conducted an abundance of funerals and memorial services. Many services were sad, others were stoic, some were humorous, and the most meaningful, to me, were those that were inspirational. These were the memorial services where memories of the deceased were shared. It was those observed life lessons that inspired me to be a better person.

In all jobs and occupations there are what we call “hazards”. Unfortunately, when working with an elderly population and in a Hospice setting for many years, you are surrounded daily by death and dying. At first, you are overwhelmed with the grief and emotion which clouds the air around you with a heaviness that is often exhausting. Then, over time, you find yourself becoming immune to the loss that surrounds you and death becomes a part of your everyday life. At the same time, attending funerals and memorial services lose their meaning and turn into just another part of your daily job description. It is a harsh statement, but a bitter reality, that those surrounded by death must face. Often, those engrossed by loss, never realize that they have become numb to the emotion that surrounds them until they are confronted by it in a personal way. This challenge happened to me this past week.

For the past few months we have been planning our yearly memorial service at Carolina Senior Care. During one of our meetings a co-worker said to me, “Chaplain, why do we have memorial services?” My first response was, “to remember those that have died.” Expecting a better answer from someone who is supposed to be a theological expert, my co-worker pressed harder, “but what is the REAL reason that we have memorial services?” That is when it hit me. All the years of attending funerals and memorial services had made them become a routine task in my daily life. I had lost the compassion and true meaning of the importance of the memorial service. This bothered me. In fact, it consumed me so much that I could not sleep that night. I sat up reviewing the lives of the parishioners, patients, and participants that had blessed me with their companionship and friendship. I thought back, way back, to my early days as a Chaplain. Why had I found it so important and meaningful to attend the memorial services of those that I ministered to? I came up with these answers.

The first is simple, but crucial. We have memorial services to remember those that we love and the relationship that we have with them. One of my favorite sayings is from Jack Lemmon. Mr. Lemmon said, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” I can think of no truer words. A memorial service is an ideal place to acknowledge the stories, memories, and moments that you shared with a friend or a loved one. It is a time to recognize that death may have taken away a person’s physical presence, but they will continue to live on in our memories and stories. The physical may be gone, but the relationship remains. A memorial is a time to celebrate a person and the relationship that you continue to have. It is saying goodbye to an old relationship, and learning to say hello to a new relationship.

Secondly, a memorial service can help friends and family search for meaning. When someone dies we are forced to reflect on the meaning of life and death. We are required to acknowledge and accept the reality of death. The memorial service is a turning point in which life is no longer the reality and death is the new “norm”. In facing the reality of death we are often left with questions such as, “why did they die or why is this happening to me?” The truth is, everyone dies. A memorial service can help to remind us that dying is unavoidable, while at the same time encouraging us to live our lives with zeal and passion, because no one lives forever, and we are not promised another day. Acknowledging death and the need to live a fulfilled life offers hope for the living. In this, a memorial service is truly a celebration. It teaches us to embrace each day, to celebrate our love for this person, and to commemorate a life well lived.

Third, memorial services provide a way for friends and family to support one another. It is a time for loved ones to openly share their grief, while at the same time, honestly supporting each other at their weakest and most vulnerable moments. Those who attend a memorial service understand that the purpose of the service is to give support to others, whether it be verbally, nonverbally, embracing, or simply through presence. It is a time where mourners know that they are not alone. It is a place where those who are grieving feel a connection to others who are releasing the same feelings and heartfelt emotions. Memorials are a place where the individual no longer feels alone, but instead is embraced by a community that is united by a common factor. They are united in loss, pain, and grief.

Finally, and perhaps the most important function of a memorial service, is acknowledging the existence of a person and in doing so, allowing them to live on. Every life has value and makes a contribution to the world. A memorial service justifies and honors the significance of a unique and beautiful life. However, more importantly, the memorial service promotes a sense of legacy and immortality. You see, everyone wants to feel that their life has meaning and importance. We as humans thrive on the desire to be remembered, to feel as if our life mattered, and to live on in some form forever. This is evident in the naming of babies. Often, we memorialize a loved one in naming a child after them. In the child’s name, those who are dead are honored and live on through future generations. This is the same at memorial services when we speak the name of the deceased. The repeating of a name is the acknowledgement of life. Banksy writes, “As I roam from one memorial stone to another, I say their names aloud. Saying their names is a simple and small way of confirming that these people really did exist. Even though many of the people left this world long ago, they are still a precious part of someone’s family. I mean, they say that you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

To me, that is the true importance of a memorial service, remembering a life well lived and keeping that life alive through memories, stories, and the saying of their name. For death, can only take away the physical; and life remains forever in the sharing of the stories of our loved ones. Yes, we have the power to keep our loved ones alive through our memories and our voice, and, that is an awesome power, indeed.

Rev. Misty Polston-York
Director of Spiritual Life
Carolina Senior Care

The “Celebration of Life” Memorial Service will be held on Thursday, October 29, 2015, 1:00 pm, at Carolina Senior Care.

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