Recently I did something I’ve never done before – I flew across country to attend a memorial service. In this case, it was for a close friend – Tim Holden – who at the peak of health, energy and vitality (age 64) was suddenly and tragically killed in a bicycle accident. His death was a shock not only to his family, to me, and to those who knew him, but also to the community of Bethesda Md. Tim and I had served together several times over the years in our careers in the SEAL Teams, and I not only respected and admired him, I considered him a close friend. Tim and I had shared things with each other about ourselves that men don’t often share. So for once, I rearranged my schedule, got on an airplane and flew out to attend a memorial service.
This is not something I’ve ever been inclined to do in the past – even for people I have known pretty well. Going to a funeral or memorial service is a hassle – the deceased certainly won’t miss me; friends and family probably won’t either. Hey, I’m a busy guy with a lot on my plate! I’ve just never made it a priority to take a day, or in this case several days out of my schedule for something like this – in spite of Yogi Berra’s warning: “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.” Yeah – got it, and I’m Ok with that.
But I went to Tim’s service. And I’ve recently attended two other memorial services: For Bill Sturgeon, a long-time and very well respected member of my Rotary Club, and Pete Riddle, a frogman from the old days, and highly respected member of several circles of friends I have. I did not know Pete or Bill very well (my fault, my loss.) After attending Tim’s, Pete’s and Bill’s memorial services, I’ve changed my mind about funerals/memorial services. Why?
First, a memorial service honors and celebrates the good in a life that is no more, and assures family and close friends that their loved one’s life mattered. It is what a good community does. I do believe that is important, and I should contribute. None of us want to be Eleanor Rigby, who “…died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.” (Lennon/McCartney)
But I have realized that there is another very good reason to attend memorial services: It’s good for me.
A memorial service is a very good time to stop and reflect. I learn things about these people I wish I’d known while they were alive. I inevitably ask myself: What will they say about me when I’m gone? At Bill Sturgeon’s service, the presiding minister noted that, in addition to honoring Bill’s life, an important part of his job that day was (metaphorically speaking) to slap us all in the face – to get our attention – to remind us that someday, sooner than we realize, it will be our turn. Are we REALLY aware of that? Or do we prefer to pretend that we have all the time in the world?
As I sat at Tim’s service, I was infused with a sense of peace. I don’t go to church and I am not religious. But that church, that service, that experience broke through my shell. Like Tim, I am a healthy, relatively fit, happy, and comfortable retired SEAL and cyclist, and it could just as easily have been me in the casket in front of the alter. In that church, I felt the love, the sense of community among Tim’s many friends, family and admirers. I shared the sadness and loss that his family and those closest to him felt. I felt the comfort of the legacy of Tim’s life, that though cut short, was very well lived. And the penetrating question – the slap in the face – How am I doing?
I was reminded of David Brooks’ great Ted Talk in which he argues that most of us are focused on trying to prepare a great resume, while instead, we should be striving live such that we deserve a great eulogy.
I was also reminded of St Augustine guidance that we should be ready to die at any moment. At Tim’s service, the pastor noted that Tim had stated several weeks or months prior to his death, that he was prepared whenever his time came. And of course, I asked myself: Am I ready? I suspect everyone attending asked themselves the same question. Or at least they should have. Tim again, leading by example.
The Dalai Lama meditates on his own death daily – in order that he can fully appreciate the day he has in front of him, knowing that this life is fragile, each day is a gift, and what we have will not last. We are here just for a short while. All this is temporary. Memorial services remind us of that – or at least should.
As inconvenient, and sometimes uncomfortable as funerals and memorial services can be, it is important to step away from the false urgencies of daily life to think about the reality we all “know” – that the life we are living today will not last.
Death can ambush us when we least expect it, as it did my good friend Tim Holden. Or it can openly and noisily approach us, as it did Pete Riddle and Bill Sturgeon, whose bodies slowly but quite perceptibly broke down over time – which indeed is happening to all of us, perceptibly or not.
Gen Bill Garrison once told a group I was in: “The number of people who attend your funeral will be weather dependent.” It was funny, but it is true. When our time is up, people will be busy and distracted, and our memorial service/funeral will be inconvenient. When it’s our turn, we will be mourned by few, and then, only for a while. Life will go on. Perhaps we take ourselves and our problems too seriously…
I have the program from Tim Holden’s funeral mass on my desk. It’s still hard for me to grasp that he’s no longer with us – it still seems I should be able to just call him on the phone or send him an email. I have the program from Pete Riddle’s celebration of life as well – I was so humbled by his amazing life. I’m so glad I attended their memorial services, to honor them and their families, and also, because I now know – I needed that “slap in the face.”