A Gift To Give the People You Love

There’s a precious gift for your loved ones that’s easy to give and doesn’t cost a nickel.

            I’ll start with two personal stories.

            We always thought my dad would die before my mom, as he had ongoing health issues. But on a Saturday morning in 1993, my mom had a massive cerebral hemorrhage. She lingered for ten days, and, as far as we could tell, may not have been able to understand anything we were saying to her.  Suddenly she was gone.   We were left with the decision many families face: what do we do for a memorial service?  Luckily, we all remembered something she said many times: “When I die, I want to go out to ‘When The Saints Go Marching In.'”

            We focused on creating a service that would honor mom’s spirit.  We were all willing to speak and, working with the pastor, chose some hymns and readings. We gladly accepted an offer from a family friend to play a medley of Gershwin songs that mom loved.  But the most important act was to honor her request for “All the Saints.” 

            The church organist found a trumpeter in town who could play “When the Saints” Dixieland style.  The pastor gave the closing blessing. From the back of the church the trumpeter began playing very quietly and slowly as Dixieland musicians do. Then he picked up the tempo.  The organist joined in.  Soon the sanctuary was rocking.  We walked down the aisle with smiles and tears.  This is what mom wanted.

            Mom told us one thing she wanted to have at her memorial service.  That one thing was an anchor in a confusing time.  It didn’t take away our shock or grief. But the memory of it still brings us joy.

            Here’s the second story.

            When I was a pastor in Goleta, a woman named Lela came to my office.  She wanted to transfer her membership to my congregation and have me lead her memorial service.  Two years later, she died of cancer.  When I met with her family, they gave me a complete script Lela had created. She’d been a musician herself and knew exactly what she wanted at each point in the service, including readings and specific recordings of favorite classical pieces.  Knowing “this is what Lela wanted” allowed us to honor her wishes to the letter. 

            In my 40 years as a pastor, I’ve been involved in a great variety of memorial services. Some were in overflowing sanctuaries. Some were with two or three people at a graveside.  Every time, I did my best to create an experience reflecting the unique spirit and life of that person.  The variety is endless:

  • In my rural parish, I did a service for a ranch hand that ended with his favorite song, “Streets of Laredo.”
  • Several services ended with a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” and escorting us out – there’s something about those “pipes” that stirs the soul.
  • I led a service for a much-loved Hispanic man in Santa Paula who had been a Korean War vet.  When we got to the cemetery, a military honor guard carried his casket to the gravesite – followed by a mariachi band.
  • I attended a service at the Santa Barbara Mission for Richard Aberle, a long-time Hospice board member. Richard loved life and music and had specified what he wanted in his service.  As I walked into the sanctuary, instead of hearing a dreary organ, a string ensemble was in the balcony playing “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Strauss.  It was joyous, life-affirming music that expressed the way Richard lived his life.

            The common thread in these services was following the wishes of the person who had died in a way that expressed their unique character and spirit.

            Have you told anyone what you would want?          

            I’m just now updating notes for my service.  It includes readings (the 23rd Psalm, King James version), favorite hymns, Joe Cocker singing “A Little Help From My Friends” at Woodstock (a favorite memory from my youth) and the final scene in “The Natural,” when the aging Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) hits his last home run and knocks out the lights.

            My dear friend Father Larry once said there’s a date on the calendar that will be the date of our death. Every year we pass that day not realizing the significance it will have.  We don’t know the day, but we do know there are simple things we can do to support those who will be faced with the task of honoring us with a service when that day comes.

            It can be as simple as telling someone one or two things you would like.  Do that today or in the next few days, in person or in writing.  My mom had one wish, and we are forever grateful we knew what it was.

            Or you can take some time and make a list of suggestions, like Lela did. Below is the checklist I’m using this week to update my plans.  When I complete it, I’ll put a copy where we keep other important documents.

            I’ve been doing memorial services for more than 40 years – I guarantee you anything that you do will be a gift to those you love.

            I encourage you to do it now.



Suggestions for My Memorial Service

            Dear Family: These are suggestions for my service…use them if they seem fitting and practical at the time:

  1. The place:
  • Readings:
  • Music:
  • Speakers:
  • Images/video clips:
  • Food at the reception:
  • Where my body can be buried/ashes scattered:

Still Life with Twelve Sunflowers, Van Gogh


  1. Alison Tamminga says:

    I remember your mother’s service. I have a long list of possible “end of life” music, will have to work at making it shorter.
    Thanks for the framework.


    1. Alison: Thank you for reminding me you were there. That was a long time ago…28 years!


  2. Karen L Stancer says:

    Beautifully stated, brother Steve! Given that I’m the older sister of our clan, I better get to work on this! Seriously though, thank you for bringing this to our attention.


    1. Glad it connects. I can vividly remember walking down that aisle to that music!


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