“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
My husband called to tell me that a lady from his hometown had died and that the funeral would be at the end of the week. He had been asked to be a pallbearer and was calling just to let me know that even though he had so much on his plate, he would be where he most needed to be–at the funeral. “What do you want to do?” he asked. There were plans on my calendar. With so many activities going on in our lives, most items are scheduled with lots of advance notice. For weddings and birthdays, we get invitations that give us ample time to rearrange our schedules, if at all possible. For a funeral, there is no invitation with three weeks’ notice, so we have to decide how meaningful our presence might be as we cancel plans to attend a service.
If I don’t attend a funeral, it has nothing to do with my affection for the person or the family. I have a hard time with funerals, as I know lots of people do, so a phone call or a card is often my best way to reach out to the family. Sometimes, though, attending a funeral is necessary, no matter how uncomfortable we might be, because the person has left such a great impression on us.
Growing up, we each have a mother figure in our life. Sometimes, we actually have a mother, and other times we have people who step in to fill that role–whether it be a grandparent, a father who serves the role of both parents, or some other loving person. When I was growing up, I had my mother and then I had several other women who I looked to as other mothers, who loved and disciplined me when I needed it. The lady my husband lost wasn’t just any woman, she was one of his other mothers, the mother of one of his best childhood friends, and she left a great impression.
My answer to my husband’s question was that I would be with him because sometimes life has to stand still. In fact, life standing still is one of my favorite ‘traditions’ associated with funerals. Even today, in the busy town where I live, when a funeral procession is passing by, everyone pulls off the road and waits. I have seen this done for most of my life, and I believe that it magnifies the significance of a person’s life. I don’t know what other people do while they wait, but I like to think about the family members who have lost someone they loved and consider what they might be feeling. I like to think about the person who has died: What were they like when they were living? Were they young or old when they died? What kind of vacancy have they left in people’s lives? Pausing for a funeral procession is a small gesture that pays large respect to a person who has lived and possibly lived well.
Life has value. Every day matters. Everybody’s life matters, even when a person thinks it does not.
Do you ever think about your own life and death? Do you ever think about the legacy you’ll leave? I do. I look in the mirror and see a few more wrinkles and consider the possibility that I will one day look older and be thought of by younger men and women as elderly. Will the people I meet each day care that at one time I helped build a playground or that I once baked sourdough bread for new neighbors? Will they simply look at me and see me as ‘an old person’? When the funeral is mine, will people pay their respects? Will drivers pull over? These are things I think about when I read an obituary, attend a service, or stop my car to allow a funeral procession to pass. No one really likes to talk about it, but if we want to live intentionally, we could stand to consider all of these things for a few minutes. To borrow the words of Emerson, we want to be individuals who have lived and lived well.
Stop and consider those who have made a difference in your life. Think about the lives that you have touched. If you’ve been thinking the only thing that mattered in life was to be happy and are feeling like life isn’t listening to your plan, maybe today you’ll snap out of your pity party. Of course, we all want to be happy, but that probably shouldn’t be our main goal.
You see, it is by being useful, honorable, and compassionate that we are actually able to find happiness. You don’t have to travel to a far-away land and help people you might never see again to make a difference, although that is certainly admirable and appreciated. You can make a difference in the lives of your children, their friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your own relatives, and complete strangers. When we die, we have a choice of what we will leave behind, of what impression we’ve made, and it is a choice to leave knowing that you have lived and lived well.