Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Eight of us, three age 70+, two age 80+, the presenter, my wife and I in our 60’s, sat together. We know one another as a Unitarian Universalist & Quaker church service. It’s not a particularly religious group. After a half-hour of Quaker-style silent worship, then a coffee break, we heard a presentation about “Compassion and Choices”, a Colorado advocacy group working on a law enabling physician assisted suicide, modeled on an Oregon law.
The presenter asked us to share: did we know anyone who took their own life? What were our thoughts about our own death?
     One woman said her brother, severely ill and not expected to live, died with his sons around. Was it suicide? She did not know. He may have collected pills. For herself, when that time came, and she was aware of her impending death, she said she might just walk into the woods.
     Me. I said my father, suffering with severe bladder cancer, refused chemo-therapy because years ago it was so excruciating. It took weeks, but he died and the death certificate said “pneumonia.”  I said I wanted people’s thoughts about the spiritual aspect of suicide, I thought it was not without consequence. And, I asked, are we, today, afraid to suffer?
     An older man said he and his wife had DNR documents. They wanted no extraordinary measures.
     An older woman described in detail how she has planned her death. She has a pistol. A friend and she have both discussed this at length. She is matter of fact. Pragmatic. She only wishes to be outside so that it does not make a mess for someone else to clean up.
     A medical doctor, choked with emotions, tearfully passed after saying he was a scientist.
     My wife went ahead, said she believes in reincarnation and that we choose our lives, from birth to death. She has worked with people physically and mentally disabled from birth. They bear their disability with grace. It is who they are. They accept joy when it comes. How we die can be a gift just like how other folk live.
     The medical doctor, now composed, said this is all about brain chemistry. If his brain chemistry is balanced, he might not want to die. If his brain chemistry is out of whack, he might be unaware of this and do something rash. His father is 97 and his mother 95, both are still living. They sometimes think the other has lived too long, is suffering, and may want to die. He is unsure.
     Another said that when you die you are like an animal. There is no soul. No spirit. No one has ever come back from the grave to prove it to her. So, she says, you go into the ground, and that’s it. She would be in favor of physician assisted suicide.
     And, the final voice was our facilitator who brought “Compassion and Choice”. She told a story about a young woman diagnosed with incurable ALS. There was no mention of contemplation of suicide at a young age, instead she chose, consciously, to live a determined life as full and rich for as long as possible. She died in her 60s when her respirator unit failed.
     We ended our session with a group hug, squeezing tightly together in a circle with our arms around each other’s shoulders.

A book chose me that afternoon. At the public library book sale (final day $7 a bag) I picked up book entitled “The Book of Eulogies”* by Phyllis Thereaux. Perhaps the sale of still living older works who have reached some sort of “sell by date” or “cull by date” is also a kind of a librarian assisted suicide for a book.
     Thereaux says that eulogies are “funeral praise”, and the form is perhaps the least valued of our literary forms. Eulogies are usually practiced by amateurs. When someone dies, it is customary for a friend or relative to “say a few words.” Many feel at a loss, pressured, inadequate. Many times I have seen family defer to a clergy person who may only know the deceased vaguely and then offer “words of comfort” or scripture quotes, but does not praise. Those words could be for anyone.
     I recently was with a 92 year old friend whose grandson had died suddenly a few days before we met, and he had been asked to “say a few words” at the young man’s funeral. He read a letter which the boy had written him not long before. It seemed a bridge to the life of the young man, what was on his mind and in his heart. It was filled with his living-ness.
     The “few words” of a genuine eulogy are elastic. They stretch between us the living and the dead. Perhaps it is the magical power of words which live between the living and the dead, a spiritual power. Even the exquisite eulogies which Thereaux includes in her compendium are possibly a means of putting the reader into the presence of the dead great people dead for centuries now. And, perhaps the dead appreciate it because, as she says, they are never too busy.
     Genuine eulogies can bring the deceased and the eulogizer into focus because both are present, both are in the words, in the moment, giving and receiving. Death has passed by but something is living. By rubbing memories together, a flame is ignited.

What about us as eulogists? The eulogist seems to pass easily back and forth between themselves and the dead. It is probable that the curtain between themselves and the dead become quite thin as they are writing and then may vanish all together. Does the eulogist then become as if dead themselves?
     Perhaps this is the power of the words in which the dead are living. What memories do you rub together? What do you say about this dead person?  Do you mediate upon friendship – what they meant to you? Seems like your story not theirs. Do you know their story? Can you know their story? Their deep backstory? Will you lapse into some philosophical rumination actually about yourself? Remind them, one more time before they depart about their failures? Will you apologize to the audience and sentimentally state how the dead tried, really tried?
     In some eulogies I have read, the deceased is barely mentioned!  In others, their physicality is described in detail: their trembling eyes, their smile, their voice, their coloring, their physique, their diet. In others it is metaphor: deep like lakes, oceans; lofty like clouds, sky; solid like hills, vast expanses, rare flowers, or a stream.
     The most powerful eulogies seem to be about the secrets the dead reveal, the gifts they give the living through their death. Mainly they point not to the past, but to the future.
It is not odd that a humorist can sees more deeply into the depths of human heart than others.  The humorist, Erma Bombeck (1927-1996,) wrote a Mother’s Day column entitled “Mothers Who Have Lost A Child”, one of the most often reprinted: 
“When I was writing my book I Want To Grow Hair, I Want To Grow Up, I Want To Go To Boise, I talked with mothers who had lost a child to cancer. Every single one said death gave their lives new meaning and purpose. And, who do you think prepared them for the rough, lonely road they had to travel? Their dying child. They pointed their mothers toward the future and told them to keep going. The children had already accepted what their mothers were fighting to reject.” BOOK OF EULOGIES, p.343.
     My friends at the meeting opened their hearts a bit and revealed something secret. The conversation about death seemed a gift which made us more alive to one another in a deeper way. A group of elders standing in front of a holy force, unsure, afraid, and vulnerable. Human.

© Copyright 2016, Jean W. Yeager
All Rights Reserved

THE BOOK OF EULOGIES, Phyllis Thereaux, Scribner, 1997

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