One of the most reliable places to discover good writing is at a memorial service. Not in the first minutes of course. The first minutes usually require adequate solemnity and, in many cases, an array of adjectives that can test credulity. But be patient. A son or daughter (or in the present case a brother-in-law) of the deceased will introduce real life.
I call your attention to a memorial service last week in Hartford for Jack Dollard, the devoutly irreverent artist, architect and urban planner who somehow convinced the staid and conservative Aetna insurance company to erect playful infrastructure and who dedicated many years to Hartford’s revitalization. The service was held at one of the city’s signature sites — the carousel he moved from Canton, Ohio, to Bushnell Park in 1977.
Speaker after speaker — many with humor (for humor is also a common gift at such lifecycle events) — praised Dollard. But I include here an excerpt from one eulogy because the speaker used an unusual level of detail to define the person being memorialized. Here, Michael Stefura describes (in the present tense — rare for a memorial service) a visit to the apartment that Dollard shared with his wife, Enid Lynn. And in this detail some of the character and legacy of the man becomes apparent:
“I look around. I see the complete writings of Le Corbusier. More toys. An old wooden drafting table covered with construction drawings for a large office building. A Racing Form from Saratoga. A colored-in zoning map of downtown Hartford. There are plants everywhere…five feet tall out-of-control geraniums, ficus, a palette of wet oil paints, brushes soaking in pots, stacks of canvases leaning against the wall…The TV is on too loud and tuned in to a Giants game. The rustic dining room table is filled with financial statements and unopened mail, a week’s worth of the New York Times and the New York Post, tons of books and magazines all being read simultaneously. The walls are covered in beautiful watercolors of far-off places, food recipes, a black and white photo of a ferocious linebacker (could this really be Jack?), photos of Block Island, some names and phone numbers penciled on the drywall. Rolled-up drawings everywhere.”
If you are asked to speak at a funeral or memorial service, take a tip from brother-in-law Michael. Let the detail, not the cliches, pay tribute to the life. And if you need more inspiration, read Phyllis Theroux’s excellent collection and commentary, The Book of Eulogies. As Theroux notes in her introduction, “Some of the people are famous. Others are obscure. But all of them have one thing in common. When they died, someone wrote about them uncommonly well.”
Note: For readers of my Connecticut magazine column on the literary triumph of David Fitzpatrick (http://www.connecticutmag.com/Connecticut-Magazine/August-2012/Finding-David-F/, please check the writer’s website for a complete list of his upcoming readings: http://davidfitzpatrickbooks.com.