The memorial service, on a Sunday in April, conforms to time-honored rituals. A crowd of 300 is assembled, gazing at a dais adorned with chrysanthemums and looking through programs that include biographical details of the deceased. There are readings, including verses from Corinthians I, as well as remarks about the meaning of life. A young vocalist concludes with “Amazing Grace."
But this is no ordinary memorial service. Many people are being honored, and only their first names are spoken: Donald H., Pearl S., Mary G., Sylvia A., Kenneth S. There are no caskets, no urns with ashes, no pictures of the deceased. No one speaks of ashes to ashes or dust to dust.
The biographical sketches describe people such as Esther K. She was the youngest of 12 born to Norwegian immigrants. Howard M. worked as a Western Union telegraph operator at Washington’s old Hoover Airport for 20 cents an hour and served with the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. Lawrence C. was a CIA spy in Vietnam, captured twice by the Vietcong.
The sketches tell of rich work lives: a doctor, an engineer, a math professor, several teachers. They were busy after work, playing the violin and teaching piano, directing a church choir, riding a beloved motorcycle, working with Girl Scouts.
Beatrice B., a teacher who loved to travel, wasn’t slowed down by breast cancer. Her sketch tells of her backpacking in England, riding llamas in Peru, and hiking the Great Wall of China: “As she was the poster child for the lifelong learner, it was only fitting that learning would continue after her death.”