Essay by Lois Hazel
Too little, too late . . . that’s what comes to mind when I think of eulogies. Can my husband comprehend how much his steadfast love, intelligence, and deep spirituality impact my life? Does my brother know that he has been a touchstone for reality, support, and common sense laced with loving concern during my most trying times? Does my younger sister feel my admiration for her expansively generous nature and her ability to give exactly what’s needed to someone who is hurting in any way? And my older sister’s channeling of our mother’s spirit of entertaining—to the last detail of table décor and gifts for her umpteen clubs and groups. What good is served by touting these unique and exquisite gifts when those to whom we should speak those words are lifeless and still?
Not that eulogies should be banished. I’ve learned little quirks of the deceased’s personality from these carefully crafted tributes. Who knew that my brother-in-law’s circumspect Mennonite mother was a scamp? I remember laughing out loud at her service. Would it not have been better for Eva to have shared in recalling her early days as a rascal? And how many questions would I have asked Aunt Bea had I known that she was an accomplished actress? My teenage imagination would have soared when speaking with her about life on the stage.
The conundrum for me is how to express our sentiments while those special folks are among us, how to salute that which we find compelling in those we love and admire. I don’t know about your family, but in mine it would seem mildly awkward to start a litany of their virtues to a friend or family member without a bit of prep or build-up. Perhaps it should be a part of birthday celebrations: name one lovely character trait for each candle on the cake or for each decade. Our family drifted in this general direction with a long-ago birthday video and, more recently, a “cry book” in which we inscribed our deep feelings and appreciation for my sister on the occasion of her 60th. It elicited the expected response (tears) but so much more: clarity in some relationships, confirmation in others, and astonishment at the depth of feeling drawn forth from a few close kin.
We celebrate, or at least note, such bizarre dates as National Goof-Off Day (March 22) or Look for Circles Day (November 2). Why not designate Betty Jane Smith Day on her birthday? Facebook comes close, but only if you post or are a non-posting voyeur. On your natal anniversary, you will likely be greeted by family, friends, and even voices from your past (some of whom you might have trouble connecting to an era in your life . . . College? First job? Or, who-the-heck-are-you?)
Six months prior to one of my husband’s significant birthdays, I mailed to our extended family and friends fancy blank birthday paper, a stamped return envelope, and encouragement to send their thoughts, memories, and perhaps a photo to me. The deadline I imposed gave me sufficient time to bind all of these precious offerings into a book for my husband. Many years later, we continue to reminisce while reading each page. Is this a better idea than a eulogy? I think not. But I do believe praising the living is a great warm-up for a final farewell. Ponder it.
Lois Guarino Hazel retired as a project editor from Rodale Press Book Division after 20 years. Her freelance work has appeared in: Sun Magazine (Reader’s Write), and online at 50+SeniorLife.com and StagesofLife.com. Lois writes flash fiction, memoir, essays, poetry and is working on a book of haiku.