We spent yesterday in Maine, in the Lakes Region, at a memorial service for an old friend of my husband's, known as Pippa. We'd never seen this part of Maine before, and I didn't manage to get a single photo of the various, enticing, sapphire-blue lakes we passed along the road. But maybe we'll go back someday.
I'd only met my Pippa once, several years ago, although I'd heard of her for years; she was legendary as both an art history teacher and a person. When we visited her for a weekend in Vermont, she'd made a great impression on me, as she seemed to do on everyone who spent time with her. She made us dinner and we chattered happily into the night. She was yet another of those 80-somethings we know who seem ageless — or positively young — as they talk about their ideas and many enthusiasms.
Her memorial service was fabulous, because her life was full of friendships, study, teaching, passionate interests, giving, and adventures. We should all be like her. The service was held in an arts center not far from the lake where she'd spent decades of summers with her family. It was packed, and her people had come from all over to sing and pray, but mostly to stand up and share stories, letters, anecdotes, and poems to celebrate her life. We should all be so lucky to leave such a rich, sprawling legacy of memories and connections.
Pippa's ashes sat on stage, in a gorgeous white stoneware urn, painted with pale blue flowers and birds along with her name and dates, made by one of her relatives, a professional potter. Everyone admired it and many said it would be a shame to bury something so beautiful. For once, I could see the appeal of keeping an urn of ashes one around the house. Pippa does still seem too alive and "present" in the lives she enriched to lie at rest in rural Maine.
The afternoon was a striking contrast from the standard Catholic funerals my family has. These start with open-casket viewings, which I dread and try (and usually fail) to avoid. Since the first funeral I attended, as a teenager, I've found this practice grotesque. I hate the unforgettable memories I have of each of my dead relatives lying there, doll-like and covered in cosmetics, looking completely unlike themselves as everyone sat around avoiding the sight and talking of other things. The viewings (there are at least two) are followed by a funeral mass where personal recollections and eulogies are discouraged. Instead we listen to a priest talk generally and piously about a person he barely knew. Then there's a trip to the cemetery where the funeral director hands us cheap flowers to leave on the casket. Finally we go to a very late, very heavy lunch in a "function hall."
Another of the last important things Pippa showed us — or me, anyway, since I might have been the only one there who really needed to know — is how wonderful a memorial service can be. Hers was just spectacular.