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A Memorial Service to Remember

John and Sandy, both in their early thirties, single, and living in Brooklyn, found themselves in a quandary when their father died. In the months before he died of pancreatic cancer, J-K (as he was called by family and friends), had given his sons explicit instructions about the disposal of his body. It was going to medical research. But when they asked about a funeral or memorial service, J-K had dismissed their question with: “Nothing needed – atheists don’t need help to get into an afterlife – and don’t you dare spend a lot of my hard earned money on celebrating my life at a party I cannot even attend!”

J-K was brought up in a Lutheran family in the Midwest and was confirmed at age 14 to please his parents and grandparents. He went east to go to college and law school, and his brothers used to joke that any interest he may have had in organized religion was replaced by a worship of sailing and a devotion to European silk ties. When he married Edith, a self-described lukewarm Roman Catholic, he agreed to allow her to bring up their children in the Catholic faith as long as nothing was required of him. John and Sandy were baptized and confirmed, and Edith and the boys attended the local Catholic Church at Easter and Christmas – and, occasionally, in between. Although the family never formally joined its congregation, this was where Edith’s funeral mass had been held when she died a few years earlier.

To John and Sandy, a religious service for J-K seemed inappropriate given his explicit wishes and the fact that they were both as religiously unaffiliated in adulthood as their father had been. They declined their Midwestern relatives’ offer to arrange a service in a Lutheran church “back” home or in the New York area.

Yet, they wanted to do something. They had loved their eccentric and feisty father. In the end, they settled on sending an email to everybody they found in his address book. They asked them to join them at their childhood home one last time to reminisce about J-K and old times. They added: “If you want to eat something, please bring it. We will drink from Dad’s store of liquor and wine until we run out. All welcome.”

A lot of people arrived, bringing more food than anyone could eat. Lots of stories were told about J-K in small and big groups. John and Sandy connected with their parents’ friends, their Dad’s old colleagues, and some of their own childhood friends. Many of the people who came they had not seen in years and many they met for the first time. Almost everyone had something nice to tell John and Sandy about their Dad. At the last minute, before the party started, Sandy decided they should give away a souvenir of J-K. He brought down his Dad’s enormous collection of beautiful ties and left them in a box by the door. People either picked one up when they entered and wore it as a tribute or helped themselves as they were leaving. Their dad would have liked that!