Lessons in Living from the Dearly Departed

Funeral and memorial services can be “by the book” with very little personal input or take-aways for friends and family, but, increasingly, eulogies may include some pointers on moving forward.


Here are some examples of how obituaries and memorial services speak to us and what we can learn.


Be an organ donor!

A celebration for the life of Harriet Boger was particularly celebratory because she lived almost five years more than predicted after courageously undergoing a double lung transplant at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Because of her successful transplant, Harriet was able to attend her son’s wedding that same year, play golf and tennis, hike, welcome her grandchild and, as a peer-counselor, provide enthusiastic, empathetic support to others undergoing organ transplants.


No wonder then, that her she wanted organ donation to be a strong part of her legacy; she knew she could count on friends and family to further her cause posthumously.


An obituary in the local newspaper focused on her success after the transplant and at her memorial service the message rang out loud and clear.


One friend of 30 years delivered the message Harriet had asked her to: encouraging all to sign up “to give the gift of life.” Some mourners checked their drivers’ licenses to make sure they had done so; others made a note to register right away. What better, more enduring way to honor Harriet’s brave life?


A woman who became a close friend after college – they two raised their children together – delivered another message close to Harriet’s heart: “Don’t save your loving speeches for your friends. Tell them now. Tell your friends you love them!”


This poem, read during the service, seemed to perfectly capture the gift of Harriet to her friends and family.


She is Gone

You can shed tears that she is gone

Or you can smile because she has lived.

You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back

Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left.

Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her

Or you can be full of the love that you shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday

Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.

You can remember her and only that she is gone

Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.

You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back

Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.


                                                                                    David Harkins, 1981

                                                                                    Cumbria, United Kingdom



Get prostate check-ups!

At another recent service, this one for Louis, a doctor who died of prostate cancer at age 75, his brother, Alan, stood before the assembled guests and greeted them like this: “We should not be here today.”


He went on to very pointedly make eye contact with the son, nephews and grandsons of the deceased. “You know that this disease has a genetic disposition, so let that be a warning. “He called them name by name to be sure they would be attentive to this message.


Later he said, “It is nice to give accolades at a funeral but I thought it was not an unworthy pulpit to give a little sermon. I couldn’t convey the agony he went through the last six months of his seven-year battle, and I hope they hear me. I get a PSA test every six months.”


Others have started to follow suit, too. Alan said he was walking through the lobby of an office building when he was stopped by his friend, Lee, who said, “Guess where I’m going this afternoon! I’m following your advice.” Alan has heard the same thing from 10 others who were there that day. “I’ve got to admit,” he said, “I’m delighted.”


Along these same lines, an obituary for  a 64-year-old Atlanta man who died of colon cancer closed with this advice:


In lieu of flowers, the family requests that Jim’s relatives, friends and colleagues arrange for a colonoscopy for themselves and their loved ones, and if possible donate to Fight Colorectal Cancer…to support research toward a cure…


And in another obituary, this one for Todd Patrick McGovern who died in New Jersey at only 38, illustrates the power of positive thinking and giving. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 – just months after being married – he was told he had three to six months to live. Instead of giving into that fate, the accomplished athlete chose to live each day and founded a nonprofit called SEAS IT to help others fighting cancer to stay on a positive track, thus leaving an enduring legacy of fighting, training and being optimistic.



Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.


Image via Flickr Creative Commons / jessleecuizon

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