Summing up a life

“How long had you known him?”  That is sometimes a question that I am asked after I have delivered a eulogy.  In most cases I have not had the pleasure of meeting the deceased.  What I have done is listened carefully to his nearest and dearest as they relate to me their memories and experiences.  They laugh and they cry and relate the various anecdotes – and I listen.  Bit by bit, the picture grows.  What was his background?  Did he have a sense of humour?  What was his philosophy on life?  In this way, I interpret the essence of the man in eulogy form.  This is part of my role as a funeral celebrant.

Sometimes I do know the dearly departed, and that is why I have been asked to officiate at the ceremony.  Those eulogies are all the more poignant as I draw on my own memories, reflecting both my experiences and those of friends and relatives.  Doing a life justice is a bitter-sweet experience, but one that is so satisfying when you know you have done it well.

There are challenges of course.  How do you write a eulogy for a child who has been snatched so young?  What about the loner about whom nobody knew very much?  Sadly there are those difficult characters, who have left a raft of bitterness and bad memories behind.  There is a story behind each of those people and the challenge is in discovering it and delivering a eulogy that meets the needs of those in attendance.

These are some of the scenarios that we will discuss in our coming workshop – how to listen, what to ask, how to divine, how to write and lastly how to deliver a eulogy that leaves the mourners feeling that they have both learnt something new, and been reminded of what they knew and loved about the deceased.  They will listen, they will laugh, they will cry and they will remember.

At some point, you may be called upon to write or contribute to a eulogy. Often this will be with very little notice and in a time of much emotion and distress. This is a time to call on interview techniques, interpersonal and writing skills.

On Sunday 21st July, I am delivering a workshop on writing eulogies at the SA Writer’s Centre.  Details are available from the Centre.   In this workshop, you will learn the techniques to deliver a eulogy that will inform, delight, transfix and celebrate. You will engagingly encapsulate the lifespan of a person with your words and capture the essence of the deceased.

On Death and Dying

In recent weeks the topic of death and dying has been much on my mind.  Not because my own demise is imminent, but because my father died a few weeks ago, and I walked by his side during his final weeks.  I sat with him during that last morning of desperate struggle as he fought to retain the ability to breathe over the asbestos driven fluid that filled his lungs and slowly drowned him.  He was conscious until the last ten minutes or so and his dying was not in any way easy.  It was dreadful for him and was confronting and distressing for me.

To not be able to alleviate the suffering of another person is something truly distressing.   I should acknowledge at this point that my father had recently celebrated his 97th birthday and realistically he did not have a lot of time left with us.  He was relatively fit, aside from that disease and still had a current driver’s licence but his failing hearing and eyesight heralded the degeneration of life quality for him.  I am not meaning to in any way sound as though I am dictating the useful end of another person’s life when I say ‘It was time’ but in reality it was and I knew that as I sat with him that last morning.

Added to previous bereavements, my family is now halved with this recent death.  Understandably my own mortality is something that occupies my thoughts.  I have witnessed suffering, anger, grieving, indignities and depression in each of those deaths, though my mother’s cancer was rapid and saved her some of the prolonged physical distress.  I have also witnessed the loss of control over one’s life and the double edged sword on not only having to rely on others to a significant degree, but the impact on those who are relied upon.  Although not specifically relevant for me in this case, in many circumstances  the caring role impacts on the carer’s family life, social life, working patterns and even finances.  Is it surprising therefore that there can also be distress and resentment on the part of the carer at having their life subpoenaed in this fashion?

To be confronted with death at a time before you are either ready or accepting is a pain that I have not personally experienced.  I have seen how soul-destroyingly hard that is for the person who is facing that end when there is still so much they wish to do, or family that they do not wish to leave.  The unfairness of it all is indescribable.   Having said that, I do not wish to linger beyond my ability to exert self-control.  I hope that I will have the inner knowledge and resources to face that prospect and to make the most of the time that is left, and to plan the manner of my departure.  I don’t wish my life to be prolonged beyond what is reasonable or comfortable, simply because medical technology is able to delay the date of my death, nor do I want to be an imposition on my nearest and dearest. 

I fully appreciate that not everyone will feel this way about their personal circumstances but the quality of life is very important to me.  When I feel that can no longer be maintained at a reasonable level, I will take steps to control my circumstances.  Thinking about this now is important, as leaving it until the situation is dire may mean that control is no longer within my grasp.

Dying is not something that we do well in our society – we are scared and removed from it and are not able to talk about or plan for our own demise.   I support the concept of voluntary euthanasia.  Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a medical ethicist who is currently confronting his own terminal illness made an interesting comment.  

Rather than help to die, the cause of dignity would be more greatly helped if more was done to help people live more fully with the dying process.

I rarely agree with him but in this instance, I do endorse the second part of this statement – that we should help people live more fully with the dying process.  From what I have observed, death is skirted around, referred to in euphemisms, and the dying person is not encouraged to acknowledge their dying and what it means to them and their family.  That is to the detriment of all involved.

Tim Dunlop, writing for The Drum on the ABC website (11 April 2013) says that ‘Future generations won’t go quietly into that good night’.  I sincerely hope that they don’t.

Final Words

Aside

Working tonight on the text for a funeral ceremony that I will deliver on Friday.  Just a small family group, perhaps about eight people, unless some old army mates manage to come.  It is always a challenge to sum up a life in a few pages and to capture the essence of a person such that the mourners feel that you have done justice to their friend or relative.  Makes you consider also the measure of a life – is it what one has achieved, what one has amassed, or who one leaves behind?

Makes me wonder what I will be remembered for.  Sometimes, putting the wording together is like pulling hens’ teeth although it always works out in the end.  I will probably get up early in the morning to edit what I have written and to put the finishing touches.  I am a morning person and so write with more clarity and purpose at that time.  He was an Elvis fan, so I will finish off with ‘Return to Sender’.