The Memorial Service: A Change of Heart

The Memorial Service: A Change of Heart


In my later years, with my growing disrespect for religion, I have become contemptuous of funerals, memorial services, or, God help us, “a celebration of life.” It has seemed to me like a bunch of mumbo jumbo. I wanted no such thing when my turn comes.

This weekend, I had the privilege of being the MC at a service for my dear friend, Jim Keeffe. As I worked with Jim’s widow, Holley Wysong, to put the ceremony together, I got a new perspective.  Developing the memorial with various people, I began to see  how important going through all this pain was for the healing process. 

We wanted the service to reflect who Jim was, and to honor the values of his family and colleagues. Some things that made it unique:

  • No church, just a community meeting center.
  • No pews – chairs in a semicircle so we could actually talk to each other.
  • No clergy talking nonsense about God and the afterlife.
  • Graphics – Jim’s son, Vincent, a talented graphic designer created a slide show, a wonderful photo montage of his life, and a memento table.
  • Holley welcomed everyone and introduced a neighbor who sang several acapella spirituals.
  • Since Jim was an organic chemist and spent his professional life teaching chemistry at SF State, and since many there had been his colleagues at State, I tossed in some humor,

The American Chemical Society called me this morning to let me know about a new element added to the Periodic Table of Elements upon Jim’s death: JimKeeffeium. It has a low atomic number since it bonds so easily with other elements (Jim was loved by students and faculty alike.)


The last time I saw Jim, he as reading a book about Helium. Said he couldn’t put it down.

I worried that the humor might seem out of place. Not at all. Big hit. One way people deal with their sorrow is through laughter.
Several people had prepared reflections about Jim.

  • Others shared memories spontaneously.
  • Jim was a musical animal.
  • He was in singing groups in college.
  • Several of them were in attendance, so, of course, they sang, and we sang.


As we wrapped up, I reminded people of two things,

1) Be extra careful driving home. A memorial is emotionally stressful.

2) Reach out to Holley and the Keeffe family regularly. It is easy to forget the people holding the most grief as we move on with our lives.

The memorial ended with a huge spread of wine and cheese and finger food. Visiting went on for another hour.

Big Take Away: People need to grieve. Sorrow is expressed through tears, through laughter, through music, and especially with a strong, long hug.

Bottom line: this memorial was hugely important for us to express our support for Jim’s family. It was also an important way for us to support each other and share our loss.

So, when my turn comes, if you get an invitation to a memorial, please come. Come prepared to sing, to cry, to laugh, and to make noise. It is very important to do all those things.

Let ‘er Rip!

Sharing Our Stories

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12 thoughts on “The Memorial Service: A Change of Heart

  1. Sharlene Mcglynn says:

    Really appreciated you commentary on “funerals “. I know, first hand, how impotant it is to grieve and heal from the loss of a loved one. Soundd like you did a fabulous job of facilitating this gathering. How insightful of you to recognize the importance of teaching out to family afterwards. What an incredibly lonely and grief filled time this is. Thank you for expressing all this things so eloquently. Sending love and a hug.

  2. Larry says:

    Good for you Rick to be be willing to change your mind on a subject based on experience. Loss is life and expressing our love and respect for that life is truly spiritual without reference to religion,

  3. Susan RoAne says:

    Rick, what a Thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I was the MC for a memorial service for my dear Mumsy. No clergy, no prayers; only tributes and stories of her by those who loved and adored her. It helped all of us especially her children and grandchildren. You paid your respects to your friend in the most meaningful, caring way.

  4. Susannah Baldwin says:

    I have come to love these opportunities/services/memorials/etc. also. Love the stories, the humor, the time to reflect. If done well they are really moving. Glad it opened your eyes to the value.

  5. Sara Zeff Geber says:

    Ditto what everyone else is saying. The one thing I really HATE is a funeral service led by a preacher/pastor/rabbi /priest who didn’t know the deceased at all. Those of us who knew and loved them should organize the event and anyone who feels moved to share can then do so.

  6. Susan Page says:

    This is a beautiful story Rick, and lovely that you shared your change of heart with us. American culture has way too few rituals, and we need to make the ones we have into our own individualized, updated versions. In Mexico, it is the season of “Day of the Dead.” We put up an altar with photos of all the friends and family we’ve lost. It is the most touching and beautiful event, a chance to reconnect with each one of those special people. The tradition is that there are three deaths: The first when the body dies; the second when the body is buried or cremated; and the third is when no one alive remembers that person. Sweet. Kind of true, really. So it’s important to put those photos on the altar, and it is emotional and warm thing to do together. I value rituals, ones that we create in accord with our own beliefs. A profound event that goes uncelebrated and unsung can be missed altogether. Ritual can accomplish in the heart and soul what can never be stated in mere words. Ritual is the way you mark events of great magnitude. Rituals give you something specific to do around a profound event, and often in community with others, providing an opportunity for a very special kind of bonding.

  7. Ken F. says:

    Beautifully stated, Rick, and your ease in sharing your change in perception makes for an especially powerful impact for me. Rip cut!

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  9. Bill says:

    Even before I threw off the chains of adherence to an organized religion, I believed it completely absurd to think that funerals are for the departed. Hey, folks, the departed, by definition, ain’t at the party! Good funerals are parties – okay, afficianados call them “celebrations” – but they are for those the departed left behind to – obviously – party.

  10. Moira E Kavanaugh says:

    I think this is one of my favorite of your writings. The full circle you!! Teacher, friend, communicator extraordinaire, and a great storyteller.

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