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Honoring lost loved ones with unique memorials

Dave Wallis helps his church maintain this Fountain and Memorial Wall at First United Methodist Church in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church in Muncy, Pennsylvania.
Dave Wallis helps his church maintain this Fountain and Memorial Wall at First United Methodist Church in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church in Muncy, Pennsylvania.

When memorializing the dearly departed, United Methodist churches are finding, and members are expecting to find, middle ground between dirges and disrespect; something less cliché than a canned service and releasing balloons. As one former funeral director and longtime member of a grief-conscious United Methodist church said, "meaning matters."

It keeps his name alive

Susan Finnegan admits her son Nick would get a kick out of knowing he has a counseling center named after him—The Nick Finnegan Counseling Center, Houston, TX. The mom says her 18-year-old son, who died in a car accident in 2004, would probably say, "Why name a counseling center after me? I didn't need counseling!"

Susan and Bill Finnegan

Susan and Bill Finnegan found a wonderful way to memorialize their son Nick. They raised money to start a new ministry for families who are grieving. Photo courtesy of Bill and Susan Finnegan.

Soon after Nick's sudden death, when it was "appropriate," people began talking about memorializing him. Susan and her husband Bill knew they needed time to think of something that would honor their "amazing" son—a perfect student, star athlete, along with being naughty and cute.

"I wanted to do something amazing, as amazing as Nick—something that would do him justice," she says. "But nothing felt right."

Then St. Luke's pastor the Rev. Tom Pace asked Susan to help raise funds for the young and growing St. Luke's Counseling Center. Fundraising wasn't her gift, but she went to the first meeting and the next and the next. And she listened.

"I knew I was being called by God," Susan says. "All I did was say 'yes.'"

"I kept thinking, wouldn't it be great if I could get Nick's name involved with this?" she recalls. "It didn't happen overnight, but it happened in such a beautiful way."

What started out as the Nick Finnegan Ministry evolved into the Nick Finnegan Counseling Center—a place where people could be helped through a variety of issues, including tragic loss.

"It helps us to know that people don't forget Nick. They continue to honor him with their service. It keeps Nick's name and his gifts alive. That was very important to us. I don't have any doubt it was the hand of God. Thank you God!"

The voice of experience

Retired funeral director Dave Wallis has guided families through their earthly goodbyes for more than 40 years, and now serves on the Memorial Garden Committee at his church of 50 years, First United Methodist Church of Muncy, Pennsylvania. When considering memorializing a loved one, Dave has three main pieces of advice:

  • Always recognize and acknowledge the person you have loved.
  • Don't close the door to family and friends by keeping everything private.
  • Share wishes for your memorial now. If you do not, your loved ones will be asked to make difficult decisions while in overwhelming pain.

"In lieu of flowers," Wallis says, "people honor the lives of others with everything from contributions to charity, camping scholarships, and financial gifts insuring the church parking lot will be paved, daffodils will be planted every spring and that taxi service will be available Sunday mornings for those who are distant, older or disabled."

Memorial garden at First United Methodist Church of Muncy, Pennsylvania

Dave Wallis serves on the Memorial Garden Committee at First United Methodist Church of Muncy, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church, Muncy, PA.

"Celebrations of Life" are sometimes replacing memorials services. Fewer wear their Sunday best as they are invited to "come as you are." Familiar hymns like "Abide with Me" and "How Great Thou Art" are sometimes replaced with contemporary songs like, "Tears in Heaven," "Hallelujah," or "I Can Only Imagine."

Sometimes the deceased gets the last word…or song. A country music fan requested Joe Diffie's lively hit, "Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox When I Die," as pall bearers carried out his casket. A church organist once played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as guests remembered the dearly departed young man as a huge Yankees baseball fan.

Sadly, Wallis says, there is another growing trend that disturbs him.

"In this day and age people are opting for no services of any kind, or they make a choice to get everything over with as soon as possible—no personal recognition of the deceased."

It's okay to continue

Amy Birchill Lavergne, who counsels grieving families at the Nick Finnegan Counseling Center in Houston, says memorial services allow families and friends to have a meaningful experience after someone special dies.

Families, she explains, often worry that a memorial service will make people sad again, and it would be too painful to revisit a grave or a memorial bench.

"I tell families it's okay to be sad because that's how you feel." Birchill Lavergne advises. "Having an opportunity to celebrate a life creates multiple feelings besides sadness--joy, laughter…remembering good times."

"Memorials give people a way to talk through it, process that someone they love is not here, and realize it's okay to move on with their life when they are ready," she adds.

A fish on every hook!

Ed loved to fish.

Ed has been memorialized several times by his wife Nancy, by celebrating things he loved like fishing. Photo courtesy of Nancy.

When Nancy's husband Ed passed away two years ago, she chose to honor Ed with several memorials, each centering on the loves of his life—the outdoors; teaching 6,000 inner city kids to fish; golf; and Viking movies.

First, Nancy asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made to a Memorial Fish Fund. The contributions ensured that many Houston children whom Ed introduced to Texas State Parks "will always find a fish on their hook!"

Ed's obituary invited people to spend the morning fishing at a local Boy Scout campsite wearing their favorite fishing vest. A 70-year-old friend and his wife drove 250 miles to fry catfish and serve hushpuppies and coleslaw to friends.

"It broke the overwhelming grief for me," Nancy says. "We scattered ashes in the lake, and we sang along to Dale Evans and Roy Rogers singing 'Happy Trails to You.'"

Perhaps because Nancy and Ed shared 35 years of "laughing our way around the world" his ashes continue to travel to destinations dear to the couple--Aspen where they honeymooned, Florida where Ed's ashes mingled with the ashes of Nancy's mom, a local lake where a miniature Viking-style schooner was lit afire and launched across the lake, and a golf course in Kapalua, Maui where Ed's ashes were scattered at the 18th hole.

"When someone you love dies and you want to remember them in a unique and befitting way, you have to do something you can tolerate because you can't tolerate much," Nancy stresses. "Don't be afraid to do something different that reflects the best friend, lover, child, or sidekick you love so dearly. Take time to figure it out and then just do what you can do."

We invite you to share comments below about unique memorials you've created or seen too.

This feature originally appeared May 21, 2015.

Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn. News media contact: Joe Iovino, Content Manager for United Methodist Communications.

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