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My Aunt Tommie

Sitting in the velvet-cushioned pews lining the First United Methodist in Batesville, Arkansas last September, on the occasion of my Aunt Tommie’s funeral, I wasn’t sure what I felt most.

There was sadness, to be sure, at the passing of my beloved aunt, who spoke with a sweet, Southern voice and silky, soothing eloquence. There was admiration, for a lady who rose above the constraints of her era and gender to become an important figure in her community, even serving on the Board of Trustees of the town’s prestigious private college. And there was regret, for letting the day-to-day minutia of life to keep me from staying in better touch with her.

Then, in the middle of the most predictable, “traditional” funeral you can imagine, I felt something else: Surprise.

 There, in the little photocopied newspaper obituary I held, a 150-word summary that couldn’t begin to pay my aunt her due respects, sat a word I didn’t expect: valedictorian. I was surprised, not because my Aunt Tommie was her high school valedictorian; quite the contrary, in fact. I was surprised that I didn’t know this about a woman I’d known my entire life, a woman I’d visited every single summer for more than a decade in my youth, a woman who meant a great deal to me.

Valedictorian.

My mind wandered, not through the memories I had of her, but of all the things maybe I didn’t know about her, things that perhaps now, I never would. That realization saddened me even further, and it also made the funeral experience all the more trivial to me. Here was a beloved member of her community, a woman who led a remarkable life, a life that touched so many others, being eulogized by a minister she barely knew, as a soloist readied “Wind Beneath My Wings,” for the millionth time and the millionth funeral. Nothing special, nothing personal, and certainly nothing too meaningful.

The funeral home my family chose didn’t fail for lack of trying, however. They pulled out all the stops, trying to give my aunt a fitting ceremony. I counted at least six staff members on hand, in their matching “Men in Black” uniforms, serving as pallbearers, ushers, and … well, I guess that’s about it. Their coaches were spit-shined, I suppose, and the casket was pretty, if I remember it right (seems like it was cherry, but it was last fall, after all).

In short, it was the perfect “traditional” funeral — which is to say, perfectly forgettable, so unlike my aunt.

This isn’t about that industry buzzword, “personalization,” either, with its slideshows, memorabilia and casket corners. Isn’t it tragic that we have to “personalize” a funeral? Can you think of a more inherently personal event than a funeral? An event people will drive a thousand miles to attend? Of course you can’t. And yet, day after day, all across this country, we sit in those pews and chapel chairs listening to the same detached eulogies, singing the same tired songs, reading the same cursory obituaries. Only the name, the funeral home, and kind of casket changes.

What would I have done differently? Well, for starters, I would have celebrated my aunt’s life, not simply gathered for the occasion of her death. I would have shared things about her life that are important to remember, to save for her children and especially, her grandchildren, who are too young to really remember their grandmother. I would have shared her story in a lasting, meaningful way, with the people in the church and the generations to come.

Long after the mourners had filed out of the church that day, after the luncheon tables cleared, and after my aunt had been laid to rest next to her husband, my family huddled around a dinner table, talking. I prodded them for the stories from her youth, about her life before I knew it, and yes, about that little honor she received back in high school, all those years before. For a moment, the clouds of grief cleared for them, and they remembered my aunt for the person she was, their spirits suddenly buoyed by the memories they held so dear. This is what I came here for, I thought, to celebrate her life, not just gather because of her death.

As I drove the long road home the next day, I reflected on that life, and the stories of her we had shared around the table the night before. I began reflecting on her funeral, as well, for all the wrong reasons. She deserved more, I thought.

We all do.

 Don Shell is a staff writer for Life Story Network®, a Portage, Michigan-based multimedia company serving 15 independently-owned funeral homes in the Midwest. For more information, visit http://www.lifestorynet.com/, or email Don at donshell@lifestorynet.com.

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