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celebrating a life
by ellen marsh

People want the usual, the ordinary, the expected ritual when someone passes on. I’ve been surprised by the concern and shock of my co-workers and casual acquaintances when they hear that we are not having a funeral for my father.

As long as I can remember, both my mother and father stated very clearly and unequivocally that they did not believe in funerals. Nominally Protestant, neither had stepped in a church for an event other than a wedding or funeral in many years. And, if possible, they both avoided funerals. Fortunately, they were a bit more liberal when it came to weddings. My brother, sister and I were all instructed that both Mom and Dad were to be cremated with minimal fuss and expense. As far as they were concerned, we could do whatever we wished with their ashes.

A few days ago Dad died after an extended and difficult illness. Dad, known for eschewing both alcohol and tobacco his entire life, was crippled by emphysema during the latter half of his life. His health was complicated by several other life threatening conditions that were the result of a hard life and poor nutrition as a child. Despite the pain and the physical limitations that were the result of these illnesses, Dad remained optimistic, energetic, and bossy. For the last ten years, his doctors had told us to expect the worst, and he just kept on going, compensating for his physical frailty with his mental strength.

About a month ago, he fell and had to spend some time in the hospital. That stay was followed by a longer stint in a rehab facility. For the first time, it was clear to all of us, including Dad, that he could not go home. He needed more nursing than my brother, who was his caretaker, could give him. Taking care of Dad had become more than a full-time job; it required the devotion that allowed my brother to be there for him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, which he did without complaint.

Last Saturday, Dad told my brother that he was ready to go. I believe that the inability to return home, to return to the care of his family, contributed to that readiness. A day later, he quietly took his last breath in the early morning hours and left us.

He left us struggling to explain to others why we were doing nothing to honor him. How was it that we were not planning a funeral? How was it that my sister and I could return to work on the day after we heard of his death?

I had a sense of unfinished business, despite the fact that I had recently visited him. But, my parents' words echoed in my head. No funeral. Cremate me. That’s enough.

Despite our mild discomfort, my brother, sister, and I were prepared to carry out Dad’s wishes. Despite the confusion and critical comments of outsiders, we were ready to do as requested.

Then, the next generation spoke up. My nephew called from Maryland. He wanted to do something, anything to honor his grandfather. I empathized with his wishes, but was concerned that if we acquiesced, we would end up with a religious event completely foreign to my father’s character and beliefs. As my brother, my sister, and I talked, it was clear that while we could not have a funeral, we could surely celebrate his life.

So planning has begun for a family event to celebrate the man who raised us—the man who worked three jobs so my mother could stay at home with us, who collected scrap metal to buy us gifts so we could have a “Christmas in July,” who taught us to fish, to drive, and to do basic maintenance on our first cars. He was the man who led a hard life during and after the depression. He got his high-school diploma only because he was able to join Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. He fought for several years on the European Front during World War II. After the war, from a modest position as a maintenance engineer, he worked his way up to a senior executive position for a national corporation.

He was stubborn; he "managed" us; and he had an extraordinary work ethic that he passed to his kids. But, most of all he cared about his family. He was a character role model and a thorn in our sides. He was proud that we all exceeded his educational achievements. While not particularly verbal, he occasionally entertained us with unexpected zingers and one-liners.

Only in his late 70s did he begin to tell us about his experiences as an Army paratrooper. Unfortunately, because of his reluctance to tell us about those painful times, now we'll never hear the rest of the story.

So, while it might have been hard to have a funeral, it won’t be difficult to celebrate his life and his character.


Ellen's recreational writing relieves the stress of working at an insane biotech company. She has too to do (and re-do) every week, because of the knee-jerk, fire-fighting mentality of the management team.

more about ellen marsh


standing in his shoes
by ellen marsh
topic: writing
published: 12.30.99


juli mccarthy
8.8.04 @ 10:47p

We're right there, on the edge, with my husband's parents. I hope that we can do them as much honor as you've done your father here. My sympathies on your loss.

ellen marsh
8.9.04 @ 10:02a

Thank you, Juli. We had the celebration this past weekend and all family members were there, plus a few long-time family friends.

It was a big success with everyone telling stories about his life. And, it provided a degree of closure which was our aim.

My daughter will set up a family web site so we can share more stories. We are spread over the USA, from Maryland to California, so that's the best way to share.

ellen marsh
8.9.04 @ 10:03a

Postscript: My father would have loved the menu (barbecue) and seeing 10 of his great granchildren together.


jael mchenry
8.9.04 @ 7:12p

Oh, that's a wonderful celebration. You know, a lot of relatives who only get together at funerals express regret that it takes a funeral to get them together -- this way, you get the joy and the celebration without the cookie-cutter church service and the needless expense.

Glad you found a way to celebrate your father.

sloan bayles
8.9.04 @ 8:12p

Doing nothing to honor him would be exactly that, which is definetly not what you all have done. Honoring his life, showing gratitude, sharing memories, and maybe even some personal stories are all wonderful examples of honoring his life while doing so in a fashion he would have been satisfied with (it sounds like). A wonderful celebration indeed.
My sympathies to you too.

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