I went to a memorial service this week. A colleague died suddenly last month, and an inter-religious service was offered for those who knew and worked with him. Family members also attended. The service was held at the university church on campus with about three hundred people, nearly all dressed elegantly in black. Some students came, since the man had been a professor as well as provost.
The service last approximately ninety minutes and included testimonies from people who knew him at various stages of his life: coworkers, deans, a rabbi, one of his sons. Cumulatively, they presented an overview of his life. As I sat there, wiping the sweat trickling down my face and neck from having walked to the service in the midday sun, two things came to mind.
First, was the man they described the same man I knew? I did not know him well. We had only a passing acquaintance, although he was always friendly and full of humor. I had not worked with him in any official capacity and had been in just a few meetings with him. I know he liked me as I did him. Still, I heard things. A power struggle here, scathing critiques there. A trip to Turkey that included a tinge of gossip. I was on that same trip but witnessed nothing scandalous.
As expected, the people who went to the ambo did nothing but praise him, even one he had had a hard time with. They praised his good nature, courage, resoluteness, compassion, scholarship, and religious sensitivity. That last one came up, because he was a Jew working in a Jesuit, Catholic university. This was highlighted several times and made me think of the Muslim cantor at my parish who taught me Caccini’s “Ave Maria.” He since converted and became my godson.
It’s not that the provost was not all of these things. I have no doubt that he was. But, being a flawed human being, he must have been the opposite of those things, too. And maybe that’s the lesson to be learned: that virtue springs from our decision to break free from vice. The provost, as the rabbi said, chose life rather than death–virtue rather than vice–every day.
My second thought was about my memorial service. What will they say? Who will go to the ambo, trembling, with praise? Will anyone trudge through midday heat to attend it? Will they nod in assent to the praises they hear (assuming there are praises) or roll their eyes and check their cell phones? Believe it or not, I saw some people doing that at the provost’s service.
If I apply the same lesson to my service, I would hope that people will see that I aimed for virtue rather than vice. I would hope that any virtues mentioned will not be half truths. Sure, Brancatelli was resolute, but he was also as stubborn as they come. Or maybe they’ll say that I was “condescending and moody,” as one student evaluation stated. I cannot deny either. I have my moments, especially when I don’t get enough sleep.
Memorial services are tough. If eulogies are to count for anything, they ought to praise the deceased’s virtues while acknowledging vices. I’m not sure how you do that except to praise the person’s humanity without claiming that he walked on water. Eulogies should not be lies. But neither should they be judgments, which are left to God alone. So, what’s left?
Hope, I think. Eulogies, reflecting the good that people see in us, ought to be given at birth so that we can spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to them, making them come as close as possible to objective truth. If this is what people think of me and the impact I will have on their lives, then let me prove them right. Let me be worthy of my eulogy.
As a way to start, I am going to sit down and write a eulogy for each of my grandchildren for their birthday.
They’ll love it.