Saying a final good-bye can be so agonizingly painful and yet, done correctly, can be so rewarding at the same time. Laying someone to rest is a way of paying tribute to someone you cared about but it is also a way of taking bearings on your own life.
I have attended three such farewells in the last month, each one very different, each with a unique gift to offer. The first was for a woman of 95, who by all accounts had grown tired of life and had simply stopped eating. Already thin and frail the last few years of her life, it did not take long for her to succumb.
Once a tireless volunteer where I used to work, she was a tiny woman who even in below zero weather or blinding snowstorms came to work on time and always with a smile on her face. I felt grateful, upon hearing of her death, that I had taken opportunities while she was alive to tell her how much I had appreciated her.
The service for her was held on a sunny spring morning, in the little chapel she had attended every Sunday for most of her life. It was packed to overflowing with family members, restless babies, church elders and people like myself, who had appreciated her and the tireless work she had done for her community.
I viewed the photos placed near the front by the urn containing her ashes and marvelled at the fact that she had not changed in spite of her great age; she had the same recognizable smile at the end of her life as when she was young. We subsequently learned, first from a nephew who delivered the eulogy and later from people in the church, invited as we were by the Minister to share any anecdote about her we could think of, that, in spite of never having married or having had children, she had experienced a rewarding life. Not in terms of amassed wealth but certainly in the accumulation of many good deeds which had served her community so well, a wonderful, humbling thing to witness as we sang hymn after hymn in her honour. I pray that I can have a long and useful life.
Two weeks later I was in Toronto at a Jewish cemetery to witness the unveiling of a tombstone. I had never observed such a ceremony before and this particular one was for a friend of my mother's who had been very kind to me when I was young.
We arrived a little early, my mother and I, and we used the time to find the grave and to look around, taking stock of where my mother's late friend had been laid to rest last year. Her grave was next to her husband who had predeceased her, just off a narrow path and not far from a lychen-covered bench. We sat there while we waited for the family and the rabbi to arrive. The only sounds were birds chirping and the occasional insect buzzing around. It felt very peaceful sitting there. As my mother reminisced about her friend and their relationship, which spanned over five decades, I remembered how kind this lady had been to me when I was young and how unappreciative I had been of that gift at the time. I am grateful that I had the chance, before she died, to tell her this in person and to make amends by corresponding with her daily while she was ill. It was the least I could do. When the rabbi stood by her grave and sang a prayer in the sunlight, I found myself hoping that I am learning to be as gracious and forgiving as she was towards me on her final visit, just two months before she died. When her son read a prayer in Hebrew and laid the first stone on top of his mother's grave, I squeezed the one I held in my hand, as though it were a good-bye hug. When it was my turn to place the stone on the grave, I prayed for her eternal peace.
Not a week later, my husband and I found ourselves in the Catholic church of a small Québec town, at the memorial service for a man who had died at a very young age, 61, after a brief battle with cancer. His eulogy was given by his 25-year old son, a very composed young man only a year older than ours, who did a wonderful job of explaining his father's life philosophy; he had lived largely, excessively, joyfully, until the very end.
When Ave Maria was sung by someone in the congregation who had a golden voice, the tears were hard to hold back. A haunting Jacques Brel song ripped at the heart. "My Way" by Frank Sinatra, was the perfect choice for a man who left his small hometown behind to make his way in the wider world. The lonely bagpipe that played "Amazing Grace" as a special request by the widow, was so painful to listen to that I felt a physical ache. I had not known this man well and yet I felt as bereft as if I had. It was an honour to witness the obvious love of his family, especially his son who surely did him proud that day.
In moments of grief, we are all deeply connected by the knowledge that our time here must count for something.