Why not a memorial service ahead of its time?

by Arvid Adell

Last September I became an octogenarian. No big deal. Just a few family members and a couple of outliers held a party for me at the home of my daughter Diane and my son-in-law, Kendall. A cake but no candles (at my age one needs a fire permit to light all of them). Home in bed by 10 p.m. Perfect.

One thing I did discover on the internet was that Caucasian males who reach the age of 80 can, on average, expect to live another seven and one-third years. Of course, no warranty came with that extrapolation. If one has any kind of a “bucket list” they recommend doing it rather soon.

In conversation with my family I became convinced that I should supplement my birthday event by adding a new, radical observance: a memorial service to which my wife and I would invite a lot of relatives and friends from all over the country. We would call this happening a “pre-memorial/ proactive/ preemptive/ apriori” event. Or whatever!

At first blush this idea seemed to be an anachronism, a memorial service ahead of its time! After all, as a rite of passage memorial services occur after a person has died, not before. Neither I nor any of my friends had ever heard of anyone hosting his or her own remembrance party. But three recent experiences persuaded me to “color outside the lines” and move ahead with this seemingly preposterous idea.

The first experience occurred on a wintry Sunday morning at a Presbyterian church in the Chicago suburbs which some of my family attend. I was jolted into extreme consciousness when I read the bulletin. On the list of those in need of special prayer was my name: “Condolences to the family of Arvid Adell, who died last week.” This came as a huge surprise to me. I couldn’t recall even being seriously ill, let alone terminally!

Not only was I surprised, I felt completely bereft. I had missed my grand departure from this “mortal coil,” to say nothing of being excluded from offering my suggestions for my funeral and possible memorial gathering.

Initially I entertained the notion of standing up during the congregational prayer time and asserting boldly: “Look who’s back. It is I, Dr. Adell. Another validation that it can be done. It’s been a long trip and perhaps we should take up a love offering to help me defray travel expenses.” Discretion ruled. I kept silent.

Post-facto, the pastor of the church accepted culpability. He admitted that it was my son’s grandfather, not his father, who had gone celestial.

The second transformational experience occurred shortly thereafter in another ecclesiastical setting. I attended a memorial service at the Evangelical Covenant Church in Galesburg, Illinois, for my cousin, Paul Pierson, aka Pep. He was a highly respected member of that community, and accolades in his honor came from a lot of people. But glancing at the service program I had a kind of déjà vu feeling. The special music was to be performed by none other than the alleged deceased. Not again, I thought! Not to worry. Indeed, Paul had moved up and on, but his recording of “Beyond the Sunset” made it seem like he might be lurking in the shadows somewhere close by.

In the coffee hour after this very affirming worship event several persons commented, “What a wonderful memorial service. Too bad Paul wasn’t here to enjoy it. We could hear him but he can’t hear us. It doesn’t seem fair.” I agreed.

A third factor which contributed to my decision to move ahead with the plan occurred while celebrating Holy Communion at the First Congregational Church in Beloit, Wisconsin. It struck me that the last supper was really a memorial service which Jesus planned and hosted while still very much alive. The words of Institution of the Eucharist reminded us of that fact: “Do this in memory of me.”

In reflecting on these three events, my wife and I had a quixotic, or at least very unusual idea: why not ignore traditional linear time constraints and host an extravagant memorial while I am still around and actively involved? After all, the expenses for the affair are going to be financed by us — well, by the beneficiaries of our will — so we might as well spend some of their money now instead of leaving it all to them for latter happenings to which we would be in absentia. So the serious planning began.

During the days leading up to this extravaganza I suffered through several bouts of extreme angst. As far as I knew, no one had ever tried this kind of nonsense before. What if no one shows? Isn’t it presumptuous to expect persons to invest time and effort to attend an idiosyncratic event such as this?

At one point I whittled the invitation list from 104 persons to 13 — only the immediate family who really had no choice but to show up.

However, foolhardiness prevailed and we sent invitations to over 100 persons. If no one shows, we can always follow that Biblical injunction to “go out in the highways and byways and compel them to come in.” The occurrence was advertised as a proactive, preemptive, pre-memorial party. No presents, no expense. Just show up and have an exciting, fun time. The responses were mixed. Most thought it was a unique, novel idea. Some wondered if we were candidates for institutionalization.

We decided to go first class. The celebration would be held at the Rockford Country Club, a beautiful setting high above the Rock River. A grand buffet dinner featuring prime rib and pecan crusted salmon complemented by a variety of hors d’oeuvres and desserts was served. (No sandwiches and coffee in the basement of the church this time!) No doubt this by itself enticed some of our friends and relatives to attend, regardless of their interest in the remembrance ceremony. Observers tell me that Randy Johnson and Mel Soderstrom took up residency at the appetizer table long before the meal was served.

The response to our invitation was a huge and pleasant surprise. Ninety-one nattily dressed persons from places as far away as Santa Fe, Minneapolis, Richmond and Seattle made the trek. The youngest guest was one-year-old James Wallis Adell and the oldest was Uncle Bob Anderson, 93.

The program was both religious and “other.” Douglas Thorpe, an ordained Covenant clergy with a Ph.D. from Princeton University, flew in from the East Coast to offer some pastoral comments and prayers.

Next was a rap written by my wife Karen, satirizing my life and performed by our four granddaughters. In reference to my chosen vocations of minister and college professor they ridiculed, “Maybe he couldn’t walk the walk; but as everyone knows, he could talk the talk. So on weekends he became a Biblical preacher, and on week days he acted as chalkboard teacher.” That’s about as close to a compliment to be found in the entire rap.

Then I made a somewhat convoluted attempt to rationalize to the guests how a still extant person who exhibited some physical élan vital and a modicum of cognitive aptitude could justify hosting his own memorial service. My observation was that my effort was met with considerable skepticism. But a sumptuous banquet and the anticipation of hearing one of the area’s most highly regarded bands, the Rusted Hearts, featuring Miles Nielsen (who’s the son of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, who was recently elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) was too enticing to pass up. Plus, everything was free!

After dinner came the Gong Show. Six people had agreed to offer 4 minute speeches in which I was occasionally toasted but mostly roasted. Our daughter Jani and our son Michael emceed these proceedings. Hiding in the shadows was our son-in-law, Kendall, our official gonger, whose responsibility was to take a mallet to a very large cymbal to alert the speakers that their time was up! In spite of a couple of violations, it was never used. Featured were some rhetoricians with whom some Pietisten readers may be familiar: Phil Johnson, Tom Tredway, Art Mampel, Ralph and Joyce Sturdy and Warren Udd. An interloper, my cousin Danny Johnson, presented me with a masterfully carved, beautifully colored urn “for future use.” He tried to mitigate the impact of this reminder of my mortality by reminding me that eventually all persons will need one and it’s good to be prepared. With friends like this…. The Gong Show was great but I was reminded that censorship and rebuttal still have a place in a liberal democracy and it’s a great advantage to being around to have the final turn on the mic.

If you were hosting your memorial service, what hymns would you select? Our choices were: “Shall We Gather at the River?,” “Children of the Heavenly Father” (with one verse in Swedish), “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and my favorite, “Morning has Broken” (with Steve Pitkin on the Guitar).

On large screen, a video continuously rotated photos of family and friends.

The gathering lasted over three hours, culminating in the Rusted Hearts eliciting “would-be dancers” to exhibit their skills on the floor. Even a casual observer of our efforts would be impressed by the evangelist’s answer to the pious interrogator who asked him, “Can Christians dance?” to which he opined, “As far as I can tell, some can and some can’t.” (In our case, make that “mostly” can’t.)

In reflection, Karen and I recognized that our main role had been as social engineers, interacting personally with everyone in attendance, trying to make sure no one felt left out and expressing our appreciation and joy for sharing in the celebration.

Our final assessment is that the pre-memorial service was wonderfully worth doing. It was an exercise in “giving and receiving.” We gave a very entertaining afternoon but we received much, much more from these excellent friends and relatives who in their own special way blessed us. For the rest of my life, whether it be the actuary’s seven and a third years, or more, or less, I shall never forget one of the best experiences and gifts I ever received.

As they left, everyone expressed their gratitude for being included. However, a couple of persons couldn’t resist the temptation to remind me that now they didn’t have to buy some flowers and attend my funeral service. So it goes! Win some, lose some.