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Commentary: The Examined Life

By William Holston, Commentator

Dallas, TX –

About two months ago, my father-in-law Morris asked me if I'd conduct his memorial service when he died. He was 85 and ill. On New Years day, he died peacefully at his home. About four years ago, Morris had the courage to reconcile with one of his sons. They had been estranged for several years. As a result of this, all of his children were there with him when he passed away.

I debated whether to tell this story at the funeral. I decided that being candid presented an opportunity to illustrate that it was never too late to mend broken relationships and that it was possible to end life well. At the memorial, Morris' son and I both spoke. We celebrated Morris' life and told the over 200 people gathered in the Kansas church, the story of their reconciliation. It was a very moving end to a remarkable life story and it was the result of Morris' humility and courage and his son's willingness to forgive.

It's not always easy to be candid at funerals. I've been at funerals where the people really had to struggle to say nice things about the deceased. I've also been at funerals, where the tragic nature of the death wasn't even hinted at. It doesn't have to be that way. Last year an acquaintance committed suicide. The pastor discussed the circumstances openly. This presented an opportunity for the family to honestly express their anger and grief. The deceased was a very good man, and had helped many other people during his life. All of this was talked about openly.

I attended a funeral a few years ago of a fellow lawyer, who had devoted his life to serving the poor. The room was filled with human rights workers. We were sad for our loss, but there was a sense of real celebration at observing a life well lived. The author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote that "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart." I believe those present did take to heart, the example of a man, who made the world a better place by his life.

In September 2001, a very close friend died of cancer at the age of 50. At the ceremony we sat up some speakers in the little country cemetery. He was a school teacher and his friends, family, co-workers, ex wife and daughter were all there, sharing moving and funny stories about his life. We laughed and cried. At his funeral I read this Psalm:

"Show me, O LORD, my life's end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.

I once read a t-shirt that said, "Live so the preacher won't have to lie at your funeral." When I die, I hope they tell the truth about me. I hope they say that I had terrible handwriting, that I lost my temper too easily, that I tracked mud on the carpet along with other hopefully more positive memories. Until then, I'll attempt to have the character to live a life that my friends will be proud to talk about honestly. I just hope it takes a while.

William Holston is an attorney from Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.