Living memorials are a way to celebrate people before they die

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2014 - 2:40 PM

Living memorials allow the dying to take part in the one celebration they’re likely to miss – their funeral.

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Lori Webster’s healing service.

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Peg Mitchell was as prepared as she could be for the memorial service for her partner, Pam Conway. “We knew to have a lot of Kleenex around,” she said.

Conway was prepared, too.

Four months before ALS would take Conway’s life, Mitchell reserved a church meeting room, asked close friends to create photo boards and take care of refreshments, then invited about 100 people to a memorial service — at which Conway was the guest of honor.

To start the proceedings, Conway read a “legacy letter” she had written. After that, Mitchell asked friends to come sit by Conway and share stories about her.

“There were tears, but I think mostly they were tears of appreciation and gratitude,” said Mitchell. “It was much more that than how much she would be missed. It was a most meaningful experience for her and all who attended. She just glowed for days about it.”

While they are far from replacing traditional funerals, life celebrations that include the terminally ill have become increasingly popular. They take many shapes (from church services to cookouts to full-blown parties at local bars) and go by many names (living memorials, life celebrations, healing services), but they have one thing in common: the person being honored is present — and may even take an active role.

“There’s a different purpose for each gathering,” said hospice music therapist Jennifer Pelletier, whose family held what she called a “healing service” when her sister was dying of cancer. “Every person has a different place that they’re on in their journey and a different goal that they or the family are looking for.”

The gatherings do more than allow friends and family to share stories. Often, the dying person throws in his or her own anecdotes and thank-yous. Pelletier and other hospice workers say living memorials offer a chance to laud rather than lament and that they serve as a salve for people who are discomfited by death and dying.

“One of the challenges we have in our culture is acknowledgment of the grief process,” Mitchell said. “I think walking with people into death is one of life’s richest experiences. And there’s sadness, but it’s important to have sadness. Being able to call up those memories isn’t hard; it’s wonderful.”

More than 300 people showed up at Woodbury United Methodist Church for the healing service for Lori Webster, said Mike Webster, her widower. “We came away feeling so humbled that so many people came,” he said.

During the service, the couple were anointed with oil, and Lori was presented with a proclamation of Lori Webster Day in Hastings, where she worked. Then friends and family members were invited to stand up and talk about Lori. To the Websters’ surprise, about two dozen did so.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Mike, “but to have all those people from her past and present be there … it meant so much to her.”

Since that 2005 service, Mike has become an advocate of living memorials.

“I wish more people would do that because I think it’s more meaningful to talk to a person than to just go to their wake,” he said.

Allina Health Hospice Chaplain Kathleen Burns said living memorials aren’t an indictment against religion, but a measure of where people increasingly find community.

A vast majority of her patients say they believe in God, but many are not churchgoers. “One of the things people get is connecting to communities: recovery communities, music communities, motorcycle groups. The trend for people not affiliated with church — and even some who are — is to do something way, way away from a traditional service at church,” she said.

It probably doesn’t get much farther away than Liquor Lyle’s.

That’s the Minneapolis tavern where one of Burns’ patients set up an Irish wake. “There was a band and food and she got all dressed up in a sparkly, glittery top and hat,” said Burns, who has been a hospice chaplain for 18 years. “But at that point of her life she was so exhausted, I didn’t get a sense that she really was able to enjoy it.”

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