Eulogy with a Surprise Ending

Two sons and their wives wanted a funeral that did not cut corners—at least insofar as meeting with me at length beforehand went. Above all, they wanted a eulogy that would do justice to who their mother was. My first goal was to get enough facts and emotional outlays from them about Mom to do just that.

And the second goal? As I often tell mourners, meeting with them about a eulogy serves another purpose. It’s not just about getting a hold of enough anecdotes and imagery to craft a minibiography to capture their loved one’s life story. The other goal is to use our discussion as a goad to do the heavy lifting involved in grief work. One way to get grieving to kick in is to talk about the loved one,  recall memories, and make sense of the loved one’s life. This can involve being aware that they are talking about her precisely because she has died, thus having to rub up against that, um, “grievous” reality. The discussion also guides them to expressing and releasing all manner of emotions about her, another task of grieving that must be done to reach emotional and spiritual healing down the road (way way down).

In the case of the eulogy below, I was moved by one of the son’s reaction to it afterward: “You told me a story about my mother that I never heard before.” I first paused, not fully understanding his use of English as a second language. Then I realized he meant that he came away with an increased understanding of why his mother was the way she was. As a biographer for a day with that family, I could not ask for anything more. The eulogy, with substituted names and cities is as follows: (The choice of names is not meant to imply anything beyond their approximate nationality.)

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Galina’s two sons Vlad and Nikolay and their wives Dominika and Natasha and I sat outside together yesterday to build a picture of Galina’s life. Weather-wise, it was the kind of day that was flawless—sunny but not burning hot, just enough clouds to give the sky some variety and balance, and breezes so gentle that none of us had to fold our arms together to keep warm.

In describing their mother, the very first word that came to mind was “elegant.” The second word: “strong.” That is a rare combination, but then Galina was that rare kind of person who liked to stand out from the crowd. She was “spiritual” the sons said, and had “an exotic point-of-view.”

Perhaps she was unusual because she not only suffered the adversity of having to be evacuated from Kursk during World War II to Siberia and live there with little to eat, but also retained a passion for living. She was defiant; she would not let the lean years of her life deprive her of relishing the good times. She got her college degree in education and pursued a career for forty years that gave her pleasure and gave her life meaning. She taught English to junior high and high school students in Moscow and served as a model for them to aspire to. She invoked discipline to help her students aim high. She was more literally a model for them because of what she wore, like the most stylish and up-to-date outfits, with a matching handkerchief peeping out of a suite jacket and make-up and jewelry that made the statement, “I enjoy being me!” Besides her career, Galina made the most of being alive by nurturing the good in her family, by doing whatever it took—and in her country that took a lot of chutzpa and ingenuity and stubbornness—to get her children a decent education and that unheard of acquisition, a 3-bedroom apartment.   She also embraced the intoxicating stimulation of traveling the world over. She refused to let the bad times color the rest of her life; that itself is a model for us all.

“Elegant” and “feminine” yet “strong” and “powerful.” These are unusual adjectives to say in one breath. Yes, she was a complex person, who on the one hand nurtured creativity and on the other ruled the household as well as the classroom with discipline. Yes, she had conflicting forces within her, the suffering and losses she endured versus that fire of resilience that nothing could smother, short of death itself. And even then, as she at last gently released the last sparks of fire, perhaps she knew they had found a new home: in Vlad and Nikolay and their wives Dominika and Natasha, in Viktor, Anna and Svetlana . May Galina Levkova’s memory continue to provide blessing.

 

An Offbeat Collection

“Normal” people collect stamps or coins or certain kinds of art. Not an “offbeat” person like me. When I was a child, instead of letting candy wrappers flutter into the trash and disappear like their contents, I gave them a new lease on life via a scrapbook. The idea was to collect such wrappers from as many locations as possible, preferably ones from other lands. As an adult I’ve made a collection of another unexpected sort: eulogies. The first one I gave dates from 1990, and I still keep every eulogy I have written. A eulogy is a genre of literature in its own right, and certainly has historical interest. Eulogies strive to portray the essence of a person, and may contain advice on how to grieve, as well as comforting allusions from a family’s faith tradition.

For those reasons I occasionally include a eulogy in my posts. (As well as the fact that new visitors to my blog regularly stop in to read the eulogies, itself a curious matter. I would love for them to tell me why.) Excerpts from the one I am including this week is also of general interest because of a reference to a famous person as well as a humorous incident. (Only the famous person’s name, not the deceased and her family, is  real.)

I gave this eulogy in October 2008:

“Like Marcy herself, this is a family who knows how to speak up, and as Donald so delicately put it to me in private, they speak up with ‘no bull.’…The family then delightedly told me the story of when she wanted to visit her friend Placido Domingo—and I am not kidding; they were dear friends—to visit him at the Metropolitan Opera House armed with her signature blintzes to fortify him before the performance. Security guards scoffed at her as a nut who had to assume her proper place in line. She made it clear that she belonged at the head of the line and would most certainly not be deterred from seeing her friend. Upshot of story: the blintzes were dutifully delivered, and I suspect promptly consumed post performance….”

“As for modern things, she was at the head of the line for being among the first to own a personal computer and read emails in 1983. ‘You can’t imagine,’ as Marcy would have put it…”

“She was so well-versed in fashion; she knew what fabrics and styles were in or out in a given decade. Before her imminent death she said, ‘Too bad I’m dying soon; I’ll miss all the new fall fashions.’….

“There is so much to celebrate about Marcy, so much to mourn, so much to admire, so much to emulate and wonder about and marvel over… you will never, ever, completely imagine.”

How I Run into Famous People

One of the “perks” of my officiating at a funeral is that every so often, the deceased is famous, even world-famous. In this case, I can even unveil his identity, as I was honored to speak at a memorial service for the public as well as at the more private ceremony in 2012. Not only that, he wrote a memoir revealing some of the personal details of his life as a “minority within a minority”, as a Jew growing up in an African-American community. I’m speaking of Dr. Irving L. Horowitz, who wrote Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on a Harlem Childhood­ as well as over 25 books on sociology.

Here is an excerpt of the eulogy:

 Whenever we hear stories in the news of persons overcoming adversity and living wholesome lives, we are mesmerized. We admire their courage, their perseverance, their ingenuity. How much more, then, does Dr. Horowitz’ life story inspire us. Not only did he surmount a multiplicity of obstacles, he excelled far beyond what most of us, even with childhoods one tenth as difficult, have achieved. The ways he did so is the spiritual dimension of his legacy. Understanding how he overcame evil is not merely for the record; we all benefit by emulating the resilience of others.  I base these few remarks on Irving Horowitz’s autobiography called Daydreams and Nightmares.

Raised in Harlem, Irving grew up in a literally life-threatening environment on the outside, and what he himself called a loveless environment on the inside. As if that were not daunting enough, he had to cope with a series of surgical procedures for cleft palate, and he and his family had to endure incrementally rising levels of poverty.

As he explained in his book, having to make the hospital a second home ameliorated the other conditions that would have made emotional cripples of so many of us, and possibly even of him. Being in the hospital protected him from having to deal with being routinely beaten by neighborhood roughs. More significantly in the long run, his own suffering enabled him to relate deeply to the sufferings of others. Instead of reducing his humanity, suffering in his case endowed him with a precious sensitivity to the human condition. It also, as he said, made him more self-reliant and thick-skinned.

 Even so, the question remains: other people in dire circumstances with comparative resources to lift themselves up do not or cannot do so. That is, what made Irving Horowitz resilient and others not? What can we learn from him that we can apply to ourselves as we struggle to free ourselves from our own demons?

Again, Irving answers this question in his own autobiography. He said Harlem taught him to be combative. Later on, he came to understand that “the spirit of combat also exists in the intellectual realm.” An apparently pivotal experience he had in high school concerned his speaking with conviction about a controversial political subject. This ended up with his peers saying “Nice going!”  He had found a source of power that could be used to the good and whereby he could be respected and show his worth. And now here is the punch line of my remarks: He referred to boldly speaking this way to his teacher and peers as speaking with passion.  He wrote that he had transferred the combative passion he had growing up to this academic setting. Spiritually speaking, it was then that he had his bar mitzvah. It was then that he seized upon his own internal flame that had been waiting to illuminate his life purpose and to shine forth upon all of you here and to shed a glow on the world at large.

Each of us has a flame residing within. It may be sputtering. It may be tamped down by insidious moisture. But with the unfaltering fan of passion, each of our own flames will blaze their way into a most exalted and full and bountiful panorama of light.

The Eulogy: Biography and Spiritual Legacy

The challenge of writing a eulogy, especially for someone who I have never met, is to capture the essence of a person’s entire life within the confines of two or three pages. I happen to fancy compact formats as I like to get straight to the heart of a matter. (Thus I am quite comfortable with Twitter.) The beauty of a eulogy as a genre is that I can start with an image of the deceased and then go on to make some comment that I hope will assist the mourners in their grieving, or give all present an increased understanding of what the deceased has taught us about our own lives.

As with much of my hospice work, my eulogies do not dwell on the person’s closing days, but on their life story. I quote a eulogy I wrote last year concerning a piano player:

“The classical composer Franz Schubert declared, ‘I am in the world only for the purpose of composing.’ To paraphrase this for Professor Lekowski [not his real name], he might have thought, ‘I am in the world only for the purpose of sharing music.’ From start to finish, bringing light classical music alive to his listeners was what he did. Growing up in a shtetl in the Ukraine, I can imagine him catching scraps of folk tunes here and there, just enough to cause him to yearn for more…..As an adult, he gave audiences pure pleasure as he played medleys of Jewish tunes, musical themes from movies, Italian songs and many other kinds of light classical pieces. He played in venues as local as a day care center with seniors singing along, and as imposing and formal as a concert hall, the chords lifting everyone up no matter where he went. Music meant so much to him that he said, ‘the moment I stop playing, I will die…’”

“Music is a form of communication. When used for good, it is a way of connecting with others, and that is what lends it its beauty and power and meaning. Perhaps the professor’s legacy for us is to find and develop our own ways of sublime communication, be it making it possible for persons to grow emotionally; be it the intellectual stimulation of talking on a topic one knows thoroughly; be it empowering others by showing them how to fix something; be it bringing serenity to a loved one by taking him to a natural scene filled with the quiet of subdued colors and the rustling of little animals and the fresh smell of the wind. Let us pay tribute to Leo Lekowski’s memory by taking what we are passionate about and allowing others to share in its pleasures as well. May his memory be for a blessing.”