The key the building supervisor dropped on my desk would open the nearby office of a retired, emeritus professor. When I first moved to the Hall of Misfit Instructors, the old fellow introduced himself, mentioning that he expected to visit his campus office maybe once a week. I never saw him again.
Two people called for the key, a professor and his graduate assistant. The professor explained that the emeritus prof had died. The two of them came to scout for anything of importance to the department. When I swung open the door, we found a classic academic's lair, walled floor to ceiling with books, boxed journals, and cabinets overflowing with papers. I left them to their work.
Ten minutes later, the two returned the key. "Thanks. We are taking just this stapler and this chair."
A week later, family members came. They collected a box of photos, paperweights, and a desk lamp.
After loading the vacated filing cabinets and desk on their truck, they left me the key and the empty room. I was in a gloomy Ecclesiastes mood.
"For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill,
and then they must leave all they own
to another who has not toiled for it.
This too is meaningless and a great misfortune."
Perhaps you've been through such sorting and dispersal for a grandparent or parent.
You knew them. You still remember them. You sentimentally retain cherished souvenirs they left behind.
"For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
the days have already come when both have been forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise too must die!"
You know what really depresses me now, seven years later?
I have forgotten his name.
Cue Adagio for Strings. There is no state of mind so wrist-slitting morose that good music cannot make sadder.
Memorial Day, 2011.
When he wasn't busy being a medical student, my friend Ross Duff lead a small church. Thus he got a call asking if he could officiate at a funeral home, and he agreed. The funeral director soon called back and asked, "I remember you played the organ for us. Our regular musicians can't come, and the deceased requested organ music. Can you help with that too?" Ross obliged. He arrived early and set to playing the old Hammond organ that was in kind of a large closet. At the appointed hour, Ross walked around to the chapel.
There was the open casket with the honoree, whom Ross had never met. There in back stood the funeral director.
No one else was present. Not a soul.
"I saw a man who had no family,
no son or brother.
He always worked hard
but was never satisfied with what he had.
He never asked himself, 'For whom am I working so hard?
Why don’t I let myself enjoy life?'
This also is very sad and useless."
The funeral director nodded. Ross read the obituary and preached the funeral to the empty chairs. After a concluding prayer, the funeral director motioned Ross to come with him. Ross got in the car's passenger seat and rode to the cemetery with the casket. At the graveside, Ross exhorted the funeral director, the birds, and—I presume—two burly guys waiting with shovels.
On Memorial Day, I memorialize not just soldiers known, but those unknown.
"No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." -- John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
We need not end so dismally. Have I told you about the night I spent pushing a casket?
It was to be a big church funeral for a community leader, a friend in whose home I had enjoyed much laughter and meatloaf. In the church building I was helping the family arrange chairs and masses of flowers when the lights flickered out. Tornado sirens started! I assured them that I would finish setup and lock the church building. I had the key. As the last of them got in their cars, rain was pouring down—sideways.
With a tiny flashlight, I returned to the sanctuary and heard dripping. Of several leaks, one was on the closed casket. I set aside flowers, unlocked the wheels, and pushed the casket a few feet away. When I returned with wastebaskets, I found an additional leak—right over the casket. "Old friend, you're attractive even now," I joked as I cautiously wheeled the casket through the darkness.
Eventually passing by to seek garbage bags to protect stacked chairs, I was no longer amused to find drip, drip, drip—on the casket. "I never knew you to stay still," I complained as we sought a dry spot.
By 2 a.m. the storm passed and power returned. I toweled off the casket, returned stuff to appropriate positions, wetvac'd some spots, and set up fans. At the huge, happy funeral, the flowers looked dewy fresh. I got to practice tight-lipped yawns.
"This means God’s holy people must be patient.
They must obey God’s commands and keep their faith in Jesus.
Then I heard a voice from heaven saying,
'Write this: Blessed are the dead who die from now on in the Lord.'
The Spirit says, 'Yes, they will rest from their hard work, and
the reward of all they have done stays with them.'" (the Revelation to John, chapter 14)
Visit a cemetery. Prove Ecclesiastes' words not entirely right. See ya' there—sooner or later.