Saturday, May 31, 2008

Thoughts On A Funeral

It started out with us all seated, and facing a stage where John’s portrait stood, on an easel, his bright eyes and big smile there, once again. Just the picture brought back good memories, and happy times. Then, the burly bagpiper started down the aisle, dressed in his Scottish kilt, playing Amazing Grace, as a dirge. Tears welled up in my eyes, as I watched the bagpiper slowly walk down the aisle, followed by about one hundred of John’s family.

The several hundred people sat in silence, as the last notes of the hymn echoed off the rafters. Then, the minister, John’s best friend from seminary, spoke of John’s ministry as a wedding celebrant and funeral officiant. He asked all of those in the audience who had been married by John or who had attended a funeral where he presided, to stand. About half the audience stood.

I had known John as a city manager, a community leader, and an activist. Yet, a big part of his life was ministering to others. As people spoke, I realized he had been a night chaplain at the San Francisco jail, the acting director of the San Francisco Museum of Erotic Art, a publisher of philosophy, a Vietnam war protester, and a folk singing, beer drinking theological student. He had also been a grandfather and a traveler, a fisherman, and a beach walker. Oh, he had been the beloved city manager, and the popular mayor, and had a host of other titles, positions and honors, but those seemed not so important today. Today, we celebrated his spirituality and his passion for the world.

His friend spoke of an old Scottish custom, when a great person died, to engrave on their tombstone, “Here lies all of him that could have died”. That spoke to John’s contributions to the world, and to what is really important about a person’s life on this planet.

His friend spoke of John’s changing theology, and his belief that the beach is really a church, and the ocean is really an altar. He read a Native American prayer, and we could all hear John’s voice in that reading.

In the funeral program, the family quoted Emerson:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you live here. This is to have succeeded.”

All of these words, all of these images sank into the audience, as the entire room paid rapt attention to the speakers, and to be fully present in this event, this celebration of a life lived richly and well, a life of public service.

His friend read a number of letters, including one from the Governor and one from a secretary, and one from his wife, who related how he had ministered and comforted her when her first husband had died. Another friend spoke of John’s counsel during a hard time, and his compassion when his wife had died several years ago. His niece spoke of his kindness to her throughout her life, including memorable expeditions to the beach, to watch the sunset, and how her wedding day was so special because he officiated at the event. Her tears became our tears as she struggled through her reading.

We ended the service watching over a hundred photos of his life, accompanied by many of his favorite songs. As the crowd milled around, nibbling cookies and visiting, sharing memories of John and how he impacted our lives, I realized that today, not only did I celebrate the life of a good and inspiring man, but I came away appreciating each day in my own life, and that each day is so important. We must live our lives fully and with passion, and to express our love in every act of every day.

I walked away in silence, and tears came often on the drive home. I had lived part of my life in the presence of a great and loving man, and he had touched so many lives. Today, I am blessed, and I realize, again, that I am loved.

5/08

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