As I mentioned in last week’s column, it’s been a month filled with memorial services and funerals. I’m ready for people I know to stop dying. As one friend said, it feels like we’re living in perpetual mourning. In my previous column, I wrote about a large lawn sign that proclaimed, “Good Job – Not Dying.”
That’s only the first step, I noted. We also have to do a good job of living instead of “breathing just a little and calling it a life,” as poet Mary Oliver put it. Which led, this past week, to thinking more about the notion of a well-lived life. And that reminded me of a column I wrote on the subject following a memorial service back in 2009 — which is appropriate since the column was about Bill Cassin, and the most recent service, this past Saturday, was for his wife, Ginie Cassin. All of the following applies to her as well — and, for that matter, to Frank Muriello also, whose memorial I attended the Saturday before.
Some funerals are sadder than others. The sad ones mourn life cut short in its prime. Others are more upbeat — tributes to a long life, well lived.
The memorial for Bill Cassin was, in many ways, an ideal funeral — beautiful program, lovely music, inspiring readings, a moving eulogy, a large and loving extended family who knew how good they had it, and many friends and admirers filling the pews in support. The kind of funeral we probably all dream of.
I knew Bill pretty well — well enough to know the tributes were authentic and earned. I always feel privileged attending such gatherings because the love is tangible and the outpouring reassuring. When your life has had an impact, people recognize and acknowledge it. In Bill’s case, it included overcoming health challenges in his youth, combat in Europe during World War II, instilling in his children a love of the natural world, and providing the kind of dedicated partnership that assisted his wife Ginie’s long career of civic involvement.
Photos on display, accomplishments cited, foibles fondly teased, anecdotes retold, meaning measured, and wisdom woven like veins of precious metal shining along the walls of life’s course. Sadness and laughter merge on occasions like these. It is not a euphemism to say that many funerals are “celebrated.” Even at their saddest, loved ones make an extra effort to highlight a life ended too soon. And in so doing, the individuals come “alive,” even as they have departed from us.
Sad or celebrated, the more of these services you attend, the more you see commonalities in well-lived lives. The lionized life is usually characterized by integrity, devotion to someone, some group, or some larger cause, frequently putting others’ needs ahead of their own, working hard at something they love and deeply believe in, having an impact on others’ lives, setting an example that others want to follow, making loved ones feel loved, actively engaging in the wider community, keeping the inner kid alive, and enjoying life while helping others enjoy theirs.
Do they enjoy life because circumstances turn out well or do circumstances turn out well because they know how to enjoy living? And if they enjoy life regardless of circumstances, what is that magical gleam in the eye and where does it come from — divine providence, personal determination, a fluke of body chemistry? All of the above?
Personalities vary widely. Some of the departed were warmer and more approachable. Some were adored, some quietly appreciated. No one was a saint, but their shortcomings and oddities tend to be more endearing than alienating.
A tribute to a life well lived inevitably offers tips on how to live likewise.
On the back of Bill’s memorial card, the Cassin family included a definition of success that bears repeating [in fact it was repeated in Ginie’s program]:
To laugh often and love much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one’s self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived —
This is to have succeeded.
Poet Mary Oliver’s cautionary question, “Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” does not apply to a life well lived.
Often I leave funerals and memorial services feeling not a sense of loss but a sense of gain.
They make me take a deep breath — and resolve to start living a fuller life.