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.”

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A Choir Rehearsal That Grew Into Two

Songs like ‘I will Not Leave You Comfortless” by Everett Titcomb and  “Bamboo” by Peter, Paul and Mary definitely left me comforted. I was a guest at a rehearsal like no other. The Threshold Choir, a national group with various local chapters of volunteers, sings to the sick and the dying. I often have sung to patients myself, and so I was eager to learn more about this choir with its exceptional name. (You can go to Thresholdchoir.org to hear soothing samples of the music and see their rehearsal locations.) “Threshold” to me implies a fuzzy boundary between life and death, between sickness and health, a boundary so uncertain and shifting that it creates a separate space. A middle ground. Music is one of the things that can dwell in this space, making the distinction between life and death less stark, less urgent even.

Little did I know that I would be experiencing not just one but two rehearsals that evening. After several songs, the leader placed a lightweight recliner in the middle of the circle we had formed to practice. It looked something like a hammock frozen at some moment in time, formed of a fine mesh of metal painted white. Anyone who wanted to volunteer to be sung to could lie down in it for a song or two, as long as they agreed to close their eyes. Since I traveled very far for this and figured I might not have another opportunity, a philosophy I have even when not traveling far, I volunteered. Besides, I was tired from the long hot trip and and rather keyed up from meeting a whole new group of people.

The recliner looked inviting. Fancy that, I was going to be sung to. Their music spread all over the inside of the circle and I felt it soak into me. But then I was startled as I realized this was a rehearsal for what I might experience if this choir were singing to me when I lay dying. After drinking in the mellow tones, I felt soothed yet afraid. I knew why they were there, and it was not just for aesthetic pleasure. I drifted in this fluid space as if the recliner had become more pliant, more giving. I was in the moment, and then a regret about my life surfaced: I had not lived in the moment often enough. I often had wounded the moment with distractions and anxieties. Those moments were half-lived at best. I then drifted to the mystery of what lay ahead and to the times when I dwelt alongside others in their in-between spaces. I filled those spaces with finely-tuned listening, with  spirited teaching, with touch, with steady soprano song.

Related article: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/hurry-up-time-is-of-the-essence-must-reads-for-the-dying/ (I talk about “must-listen-to” music as well.)

Announcement: Chapter Two of the book, Encountering the Edge, consists of stories about my singing to patients as well as the effects of other music. This link will take you to my author page at the publisher’s site. The link includes a free excerpt: http://pen-l.com/EncounteringTheEdge.html