“These are individuals who managed to figure out the unique gift that the universe gave them when they incarnated, and they put that in the service of their goals…

“And when we see these people, we invariably call them larger than life. Life is large, but most of us don’t take up nearly the space the universe intended for us. We take up this wee space ‘round our toes, which is why when you see somebody in the full flow of their humanity, it’s remarkable. They’re at least a foot bigger in every direction than normal human beings, and they shine, they gleam, they glow. It’s like they swallowed the moon.”

—Caroline McHugh

“Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, ‘Here am I; send me.’” 

—Isaiah 6:8

Once in a while, in the funeral world, when you hear stories from grown sons and daughters about their parent who passed, you know you missed a luminous one. You can tell how special that person was because of the speed with which the stories of the beloved one pour forth, spill out, and by the unalloyed joy in the telling of them. You can tell a lot about a person’s life by the love and sweetness with which their post-mortem stories are told. This is the case with Lee P., affectionately nicknamed Leapy. 

Leapy’s son and daughter, Gregory and Joyce, waited in the lobby of the funeral home for me to usher them into a room to talk about their father’s memorial service. In the lobby, they saw the looping videos of baby boomer memorial services with Harley Davidsons and golf carts wheeled in to the chapel to symbolize the passed person’s passion, as if motorbike riding could capture the very core of the person or a sport is a great container for the heart of the loved one.

After we sat in the meeting room, Gregory, the 62-year-old son, pointed to another picture of said chopper in the chapel and blurted out, “My father was a man without any hobbies. His only hobby was helping other people. That’s how he spent his spare time. Helping a neighbor kid learn to ride a bike or me with my homework, or every grandkid how to drive a car, or being active in scouting, or helping an old lady mow her lawn. He drove a Darigold delivery truck, but his help to others was not at all modest or gimmicky. He believed in serving others and in spreading joy. That’s pretty much it.” 

Gregory went on, “You asked me for music for the prelude… he loved music, but I don’t remember any songs. We will figure that out. But here’s what I can tell you. He was in love with our mother, Anna Jean, his wife of almost 70 years. He treated her so respectfully. He showed all of us what it meant to cherish a beloved. That’s what he lived out. Leapy lived out real love.”

Joyce cut in, “He took such delight in delighting her. Like it was his greatest joy to see her beam. I can’t remember whether it was for her birthday or one of their anniversaries, but he threw a secret party for her and over-invited everyone, and surprised and delighted her. The way he looked at her face while she expressed such joy, it was all he lived for. That’s a big moment for me, to have witnessed his joy at her joy.” They continued to tell one story after another about their father’s goodness, his service and his modest, but loving, way of being in the world. 

“He was a jolly guy. He wouldn’t want us grieving and crying at his service. That’s so medieval. He would want a party! He would want our joy. This should be totally a celebration of life.” In my notes I wrote, “humor, laughter, levity, joy.” It sounded good. But what was lost if so much celebration of life overshadowed and disallowed their big loss of him. Grief is humanizing. And grief is praise. I worried they were just going to tell “happy” stories and lose digging in to the significance of what they had just lost. What happens to us when we skip over our grief? When the nice guy in the sky disallows us to dwell in our loss? What happens when there is no dirge, no requiem, no sobbing? What happens to us when we choose to party when we are supposed to “stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”? What happens when we don’t look squarely at the lonely riderless horse, with the empty boots turned backwards in the stirrups? 

It’s a devastating blow to lose someone with whom you don’t have a complicated relationship. 


  • Paul Boardman

    Writer and inter-faith Funeral Chaplain and Celebrant living in Seattle, Washington.

    Paul Boardman grew up in Tokyo, Japan, and holds the farcically-named “Masters of Divinity” from Princeton Theological Seminary. Two of his enduring thematic obsessions in writing are: what constitutes a good life in the face of death/loss and the nature of yearning, even greed, for love. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Good Men Project, Gravel, 3rd Act and ICCFA magazine, and in the anthologies Grief Dialogues: The Book, Just a Little More Time, We Came to Say and We Came Back to Say. He is looking to place his memoir.