Many people and families around the world sense no connection to any faith community, and this fit the description of the Marshalls quite well. In the last years of Robert Marshall's life, he described frustration with religious systems and decried the "flim-flammery" of religious leaders and institutions. "All they ever want is your money," he had said to his children on many occasions.
His children had also heard him say at many different times that he really didn't want a funeral. "I guess I don't care what you do with me when I'm dead. You know," he continued, "I'll be dead!" As his health deteriorated, Marcie, his oldest daughter found an opportunity to talk with him: "Dad, we will want to at least have a memorial service. Is that okay?" And, predictably, he said, "Well, I really don't care; I'll be dead, you know!"
So when Robert died at age 71, his family knew they wanted to do "something," but without any religious or ethnic traditions to guide them, they set about to create a memorial gathering they thought would best honor their dad's life. As they talked with the funeral director handling Robert's cremation, they even considered contacting a local minister who had married two of the grandchildren. "If we had any minister at his service, I think dad would come back and haunt us," Marcie said to the laughter of everyone in the meeting.
The funeral home had a nice room designed for informal services like what they envisioned for Robert. The funeral director suggested assembling some photographs for a life tribute video and bringing in some memorabilia that would recall important values and interests from Robert's life. Unfortunately, Robert had alienated many people from his life in recent years, so his children were not even sure how many friends would join their small family for the service. Finally, all decided they would create their own service with the funeral director acting as an emcee'.
The Marshalls also learned from Mark, their funeral director, that they could have an opportunity to see Robert one last time and even witness the cremation if they wished. Since Bob was vacationing with his family out of state when his dad died, he indicated interest in a private time to say goodbye. The funeral home provided a nice setting in one of their rooms and the family members had some time to say goodbye.
On Saturday, eight days after Robert's death, ten family members and about two dozen friends gathered in the funeral home's Fireside Room for a simple memorial service to celebrate Robert's life. The service began with the playing of an old Frank Sinatra recording, I Did it My Way, a song Robert's kids agreed was a fitting description of his life. Mark, the funeral director welcomed everyone and explained that Robert's memorial service would be a bit different. "In a few minutes," he told them, "you will have an opportunity to share a favorite memory of Robert's life." He explained further, "You might want to recall a specific character quality or value that describes Robert to you. You might want to tell a brief story in just a few sentences of a time you interacted with him that makes you smile. This is your time to share."
Robert's college-age granddaughter, Kristen stood and read a "Letter to Grandpa" she had written for the memorial service. Then, Robert's grandson, an Air Force pilot read John Gillespie Magee's famous poem, "High Flight," calling it a fitting tribute to his grandpa who had served with distinction as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
The video with more than 80 photos and three of Robert's favorite songs began playing on the screen in the room as those gathered alternated between laughing and crying. Then came the long-awaited time for people to stand and share their favorite memories.
As Mark skillfully recognized one person after another, each stood and told their story or offered their tributes to Robert—a man of generosity, patriotism and strong conviction. Marcie was the last to speak—and summed up the feelings of many in the chapel that afternoon. "When you get all of us together in one place, you can see just how much influence Dad had on all of us. I'm not sure he ever really knew it; I'm afraid I didn't find the words to tell him. I hope he can hear us today as we talk about the great man he was. But I guess as we share these stories, one thing we can all agree on is this. Robert Marshall has made all of us into better people."
An honor detail from the Veterans of Foreign War presented the folded American flag to Marcie and her brother, Bob. Then, as if Robert were singing the song himself, the voice of Roy Rogers began to croon through the speakers in the chapel, Happy Trails to You.
With literally hundreds of options for non-religious or secular ceremonies, the following resources may be helpful to you.
- Secular Seasons
- Bennett, A. & Foley, T. (1997). In Memoriam: A Practical Guide to Planning a Memorial Service. New York: Fireside.
- Lamont, C. (1977). A Humanist Funeral Service. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Moore, F. (2009). Celebrating a Life: Planning Memorial Services and Other Creative Remembrances. New York: Stewart, Tabori, & Chang.
- Walter, T. (1997). Secularization. In C. M. Parkes, P. Laungani & B. Young (Eds.), Death and Bereavement Across Cultures (pp. 166-187). London: Routledge.