I will never forget the advice that the late and great Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard University gave to me after my appointment as university chaplain. I expressed my concerns about being only 29 years old in this position and my fears about not being respected by older administrators. He told me that he, too, had been appointed to his position at a very young age. He then encouraged me to never forget that “Any time an older president, provost, dean, or professor gives you a hard time, remember that you will eulogize them all!”
He was, of course, with his trademark irreverent-yet-holy brilliance, reminding me that the academic and ministerial vocational journey is more marathon than it is sprint, and that all challenges eventually pass. I missed, somehow, the literal truth to what he was saying. A large and important part of the work of college and university chaplaincy is the planning of and the presiding over memorial services for faculty, staff, and administrators. And I have found that these memorials are about more than remembering and honoring departed colleagues. They are also an opportunity for us to pause and consider what our own legacies will be.
Even at smaller colleges and universities, it is difficult to imagine knowing the entire faculty or all the members of the staff and administration. In my case there are some members of our community whom I have known since my undergraduate days here. Others I know only by reputation. Some I only meet via the memories and stories that I hear at their memorial services.
These services are as profound as they are simple. As healing as they are grief-filled.
Serving as a chaplain at a nonsectarian university, I help to craft a service that is accessible for all who will attend while simultaneously being true to the individual we are remembering. Sometimes an individual was a person of faith and sometimes not.
This points to what I think is the first difference between a funeral and a memorial service. Funerals tend to be driven more by the family of the deceased and by any last wishes left behind. A funeral service is more likely to be a religious service reflecting one’s faith or the faith of the family. A memorial service at a college usually reflects the institution where one taught. That does not mean a service is devoid of faith or religion, but rather it is not the driving theme of the service. Likewise funerals, particularly religious ones, incorporate an element of ritual or certain rites. Memorials tend to emphasize remembrances rather than rites.
Most of the memorial services that I have seen on college campuses seem to follow a similar format. There is an opening of some sort and this is traditionally done by a chaplain or department chair. After that, an administrator will offer remarks. Following the president or dean, several colleagues from the department and sometimes from other institutions will speak. And, when appropriate, current or former students share their experiences working or studying with an individual. We’ve found that it’s important to offer some type of musical interlude at events like this, and often that music is the accompaniment to a slideshow compiled with the assistance of the family.
After the music and slideshow we open the program up to anyone else who was not on the program and would like to offer remarks. Some share hilarious stories. Others shed tears and can barely get a word out. But it’s important for people to have an opportunity to share.
And that’s really what these events are for. The director of our university counseling center likes to remind us how important memorial services are for a campus community. Ceremonies like funerals and memorials are an important part of the grief process for many people. They allow a community to formally say goodbye. They provide us with an opportunity to be together, support one another. Hug each other while we cry. They’re also an opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived and the great blessing it is to journey through life with each other.
I have noticed something at these services. When the speakers come to the front, they identify themselves not simply as department colleagues or fellow researchers in a lab, but as friends. And their remarks may offer a sentence or two about one’s “influence on the field,” “contributions as a scholar” or “excellence in the classroom” but almost to a person, the words offered at memorial services are stories about and testimonies to the character of the individual being memorialized that day. While intellect and professional accomplishments are respected and certainly acknowledged, this is not what those who rise to speak hold on to. If one’s CV is the predominant subject matter at one’s memorial service, then something went terribly wrong along the way.
It seems that the legacies that we leave as scholars and as higher education professionals are threefold. We of course will leave behind professional and scholarly contributions in the form of texts and articles written, courses taught, research opportunities, or programs that left deep impressions on our students, as well as faithful work in the service of the institutions that we serve.
Along with our professional and scholarly one, it turns out that we also leave a legacy established by our character. The way we treat our colleagues and co-workers seems to be just as if not more important than the academic and professional work that we offer. Junior colleagues often recall in memoriam how they were recruited to a place, or mentored during their first semesters. They remember how they were treated during their tenure review or in other potentially stressful moments in their career. The department staff will often speak to the simple courtesies and daily decency of an individual. This is what is most talked about at memorials.
Sometimes, before I return to the podium to close the service a member of the family rises and asks to say a few brief words. With tear-soaked faces that express gratitude for the kind stories—many of which they had never heard—about their husband, wife, partner, or parent. They then share a facet of the individual that most of us knew little of. They talk about the fun-loving parent who read stories to them as a child and coached their little league team. Or the gentle grandparent who spoiled their little grandkids. We hear about the quirky hobbies that occupied their time away from the lab or office. We hear about someone who was never called “Doctor” or “Professor” at home, but instead “Honey,” “Mommy,” or “Pop-Pop.”
After the service ends some of us dare to imagine what our own memorial service will someday be like.
It is a grim thought that probably shouldn’t be dwelled on too long, but these moments of reflection challenge us to consider just how we will be remembered. What will our colleagues say about us? Will they say that we were kind and supportive? Will they be proud to have worked with us? Will our former students point to us and say that we recognized gifts in them and affirmed them in a meaningful way?
And will our kids and partners stand at our services and smile at our colleagues? Or will they remain seated with resentment toward a job that made their parents miss so much of their lives?
Our legacy should never be the motivation for our work. Worrying about our image can lead to poor decision-making, a preoccupation with oneself, and a lack of courage. Yet it is healthy, I think, from time to time to consider how we are treating those around us. The ripples of our love and kindness will carry on long after our books are out of print and long after our seasons in higher education have passed.