When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that's the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky (spirit in the sky)
That's where I'm gonna go when I die (when I die)
When I die and they lay me to rest
I'm gonna go to the place that's the best
When the song Spirit in the Sky, the 1970 rock classic by Norman Greenbaum, began to play at the closing of my friend Marie’s funeral, some people laughed outright. And throughout the funeral home you could hear exclamations of appreciation: “How wonderful! That song is so her!”
Marie’s funeral is on my list of “favorites”. My favorite funerals are those that - even in the midst of heartache – left me feeling uplifted, comforted, touched by a sense of meaning, and in some way bonded to and supported by the presence of the other mourners.
My favorite funerals have all been highly personalized events, reflective of the talents, personality and interests of the person who has died. One such funeral was my friend Jean’s.
Jean: Music, Poetry and Pie
For 10-years, Jean and I were members of the same poetry-writing group. Our group was close-knit, bonded together by a shared love of words and a shared history of supporting each other through life losses, changes and accomplishments large and small.
A retired librarian, Jean had never married. Soon after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer Jean moved into a long-term hospice care facility. Members of our group rallied to Jean’s side, holding our bi-monthly meetings at the hospice facility, and then aiding Jean’s sister in navigating Jean’s end-of-life care.
Jean preplanned her life celebration, even naming it “Jubilee for Jean”. Jean’s best friend served as the day’s designated “emcee”, moving along a “playbill” program that included bagpipes, poetry written by Jean, poetry written to Jean, Irish dancing, vocal and keyboard renditions of Jean’s favorite songs and more. Per the playbill, when all was “finis”, people were told to “Proceed to Pies, Books & Mingling!” Invited guests had been asked to bring a favorite pie to share and I distinctly remember over-indulging. As guests left we were all urged to take home a memento of something that had once belonged to Jean: a book, plant or musical instrument. I still have on my bookshelf, The Other Voice, a book of 20th Century Women’s Poetry I took with me that day. Tucked inside I found this poem by Jean – written as she tried to come to terms with life in hospice and her impending death – I found out later that as a fond farewell Jean had hidden a poem to be found later in all of her mementos:
Everything flowers here
Bright buds punching
Into the air like boxers
In a championship fight
Whole rafts of blossoms
Float in the sky of a pool
Trees storm cloud heavy
Rain down scented crowns
Fill streets with petals
Everything flowers here
Why not you
Mark: The Man, the Legend, the Diet Coke!
My newspaper colleague Mark was known for drinking diet coke. Lots of diet coke. Six to eight cans a day - which might have accounted for his abundance of nervous energy. It was a running joke in the newsroom where we once worked together, me as a reporter and Mark as executive editor. His love of diet coke was incorporated into his funeral, to lots of laughter and much appreciation for Mark’s final acknowledgement of this particular personal quirk.
When in his early 50s, Mark was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer. A realist, Mark immediately planned his own funeral service, one that was reflective of those things in life he enjoyed and held dear, including the people he knew would gather to celebrate his life.
The personalized tone for Mark’s funeral was set by what mourner’s first encountered in the funeral home lobby: a make-shift candy store stocked with items from a business owned by Mark and his wife. Small bags were provided so that guests could take home whatever and however much candy they wanted.
Under each chair in the funeral home chapel was a can of diet coke with an attached note that read “The man! The legend! The diet coke!” As people sat down you could hear them say, “How Mark!” about both the can of diet coke and the tongue-in-cheek note.
The funeral service began with a good-bye video-taped message from Mark, recorded several weeks prior to his death. In the video Mark talked about his love for his wife, daughter and recently adopted son; his only regret he said was that he would not be there to see his son grow-up. The rest of the video was a message of heart-felt appreciation for the life he had lived and the people he had met along the way. What has stayed with me from that day is how authentic Mark’s final words were. Heartfelt. Open. Honest. And how authentically the music he chose for the funeral reflected his self-understanding especially The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel – Mark thought of life as a fight against odds that he was willing to take on and win.
I don’t remember exact words that were said by so many of Mark’s former colleagues, friends and family members. But I do remember that what was said was said with great affection. And I remember that the whole day was a perfect tribute to someone special.
Marie: A Spirit in the Sky
I had the honor of helping my friend Marie find peace in the dying process. And at her funeral, I had the honor of being an officiator. Whenever I think of Marie, honor is a word that comes to mind often, as she was someone it was an honor to know because she brought such love and light into everything she did and every life she touched.
I first met Marie when I was teaching a week-long art workshop. She was my student – thought I have a feeling I was really her student regarding how life can be lived. Throughout our friendship Marie was an example of what it meant to consciously create all aspects of one’s life, including one’s own dying process and funeral.
Marie was a poet, writer and visual artist and her funeral reflected those passions in a very personalized way. Marie’s art work was hung throughout the funeral home on the day of her memorial service; beneath each artwork was a corresponding printed card of the same artwork that could be taken home as a keepsake – each card also had a poem or writing by Marie on the flipside. A video of Marie and her family – husband, children and grandchildren – was played prior to the service. Eulogies were given by family members of all ages.
And of course there was the memorable end to the funeral, Spirit in the Sky.
A good funeral can leave you feeling deeply touched. Uplifted. Bonded in shared loss and appreciation with other mourners. And glad you were there.
And a good funeral can start you thinking – no matter your age – how do I want to be remembered? What are the elements I want as part of my own life celebration? I’ve started a list. Thanks to Jean, I will ask people to bring Christmas cookies to my memorial service; and I’ll give away as mementos any artworks, books and collectables my family doesn’t want. Mark’s life celebration has made me think about videotaping a final message of gratitude and appreciation.
And now Spirit in the Sky has joined my list of the other songs I would like played at my funeral: Let It Be by the Beatles, and Morning has Broken and Peace Train by Cat Stevens. Thank you Marie.