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Memorial service programs could definitely use an upgrade

Sun., May 26, 2013

The authors are almost always “anonymous.”

Their verses show up on printed memorial programs handed out at funerals.

Some popular ones begin with these lines:

God saw you getting tired and a cure was not to be.

I’d like to leave an afterglow of smiles when day is done and through.

Do not stand over my grave and weep.

You get the sentiments. Beautiful all, but all a little tired.

How long have these standard verses been in circulation?

“Since Christ was a small boy,” joked Dennis Murphy, president of Heritage Funeral Home and Crematory in Spokane.

We need some new verses for memorial service programs. We need a new generation of anonymous writers to pen those verses. Perhaps some of our readers could do this.

More on that later. First, some history.

Memorial mainstays

Modern memorial services have grown free-spirited in recent years.

There are now Elvis funerals in which deceased folks wear Elvis T-shirts in their caskets.

Motorcycles and horse saddles have found their way into funeral home chapels, reflecting the passions of people who liked to ride free in the wind while alive.

Golf themes, Hawaiian shirts, women wearing purple and red. Yep. All been done.

Bible verses read aloud at services and traditional hymns are still popular, but alternatives are edging in: goddess gratitude, New Age incense, Beatles lyrics.

“Some don’t want their funeral to be a somber affair anymore,” said Paula Davis, a Heritage funeral director. “They want it celebratory.”

But in this decade of radical change in memorial services, one thing has remained constant: the printed memorial program handed out at as mourners walk in.

These programs are known as “memorial folders” in funeral home jargon, but whatever they are called, families and friends of the deceased still want them.

“I can hardly get a husband and wife to even share one,” Davis said. “People are nervous at funerals, and it gives them something to do with their hands.”

The contents of the programs have remained fairly consistent, too.

They usually include the deceased’s birth and death dates, a photo, list of pallbearers, where services were held, where the deceased was buried, and those memorial verses.

Don’t be sad. I am in a snowflake. I am in the rays of sun. I am in the sparkling of stars.

Memorial programs might seem small, disposable items, but people hold on to them for years.

“It’s a way to sum up a person’s life,” said Murphy, who still has his great-grandmother’s memorial folder from 1939.

“It’s a way to communicate to the rest of us their thoughts about life.”

Memorial programs are growing even more popular – and substantial.

When Andrew Adams – a funeral director at Hennessey Funeral Homes and Crematories in Spokane – started out nine years ago, memorial programs were “a half sheet folded in half that had a picture of a waterfall or a rose,” he said.

Now, they are bigger and often include several photos of the deceased.

“We’ll see more obituaries in the programs,” Adams predicted. “And people want more pictures and all the song lyrics put in so people can follow along.”

Adams also anticipates more inserts placed in the programs showing the order of service – what was read and sung and by whom.

While memorial programs expand, the choice for verses has remained fairly static. Some families write original poems or prose, but this is rare.

In this modern era, the need has arisen for verses that express a person’s thoughts and beliefs.

Maybe God wasn’t part of the deceased’s life, for instance, or heaven and hell a concern, either. Maybe the deceased didn’t care to hang on to life to the bitter end.

Where are the verses that reflect these sentiments?

The example

Several years ago, Mark Mangiaracina, of Spokane, visited his father-in-law, strong in body but no mind left because of Alzheimer’s, and he then visited his own brother, whose body was shutting down though his brain was still sharp.

Mangiaracina, a retired telephone company technician, had written poetry for years.

After visiting the two family members, he wrote a poem titled: “I don’t need another day.”

The last verse of the poem seems tailor-made for a modern memorial program.

It reads:

Being young and healthy

Everyday is a thrill,

Yet life is much different

When your body disobeys your will.

Fight to the bitter end

You could always hear me say;

However this fight is hopeless,

There is no other way.

Hear me, God;

Please listen to what I pray:

Thanks for my life, it’s been great.

But I just don’t need another day.

When his brother died, Mangiaracina read “I don’t need another day” at the funeral in Winter, Wis. A funeral home employee asked for a copy. He said no, unsure what the woman intended to do with it.

But now, with a perspective of a few years, he is offering the verse to anyone who wishes to use it.

The contest

Does it seem slightly macabre to hold a writing contest asking for modern memorial verses?

It’s a public service, actually.

In our diverse world, not everyone thinks or lives or believes alike; we need memorial verses reflecting that diversity.

Why not just print a person’s favorite Leonard Cohen poem or Carole King lyric on the memorial folder? Well, copyright issues are murky when it comes to memorial programs.

For many years the 1996 poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis was popular. It begins: I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.

The poem talks about what matters most at the end of our lives – how we spent our time, shared our love, used our talents. All that we did in “the dash” that separates our birth date from our death date on gravestones and in memorial programs.

On Ellis’ website now, copyright warnings scream out everywhere. People are allowed to say the poem aloud (with attribution) at gatherings, but no printing it without written permission.

Who can blame Ellis? She wrote a modern funeral poem, and the world devoured it without asking.

So what you write won’t be copyrighted. It will be available for the world of grievers to devour – kindly, of course.

Use your imagination. Limericks are welcome. Twitter-brief sentiments, too.

Mangiaracina is uncertain what verses will grace his memorial program someday, but he knows what he wants on his tombstone:

No restraint.

So a saint, I ain’t.

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