This past summer, as part of our 35th year reunion of the Owensboro High School class of 1977, I was asked to speak at a memorial service in honor of classmates who had passed away. I have been humbled by the response and feedback I still receive regarding that speech and decided to post those remarks here for people to read. Perhaps something here will be a blessing to you as you consider the loss of friends or family members.
Thanks for reading!
Class Reunion Memorial Service 6-2-2012
Speech by Steve McFarland at First General Baptist Church
The poet John Dunne once wrote the famous line – “Every man’s death is diminishing to me for I am part of mankind – therefore never ask for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.” There may not be a better word to describe how I feel as I think about classmates who have passed away than that of ‘diminished’. Certainly we are diminished in numbers as a class and we are diminished in spirit having lost one of our peers. Part of us is taken away when we lose a loved one – there is a piece of us that dies a little bit along with the person we have lost. To lose a peer and a classmate is to lose a little of ourselves.
It is an honor for me to be asked to speak this morning at this special occasion as we come together to remember our class mates who have left us far too soon and unexpectedly. It is one thing to speak at memorial services for a person much older – even one of our parents or grandparents who many of us have lost – seems somehow easier to talk about than memorializing our peers – our friends and classmates.
You and I will forever be connected by a common experience. We went to school together. Many of us attended the same elementary school, the same junior high and all of us graduated as Owensboro High School Red Devils – class of 1977. Nothing will ever take that experience away from us. We began this journey together and as the theme of our weekend states – we are “continuing the journey”.
There is something powerful about sharing a common experience. Several years ago I was in Louisville Kentucky at the Executive Inn (West, I believe) sitting in the lobby waiting on a friend that I was to meet and attend a meeting there with. And while I waited I noticed some people arriving wearing insignia that indicated they were military veterans. I overheard some of their conversations and learned that they were veterans of the Korean War and were at the hotel to celebrate a reunion with other Korean War veterans. As I sat there and watched as they arrived I noticed the way they embraced one another – some cried, some laughed and it was obvious that they were ecstatic to see one another. But as I listened I came to realize that they did not necessarily know one another. Although at first I assumed they were old friends the way they embraced each other – I soon realized they, in fact, had no knowledge of who each other was (in most cases). But they were still embracing, crying, laughing, talking, and genuinely glad to see each other.
They were bound together by this common experience. They had fought a war together and they were alive to share their memories and celebrate their lives together.
That is exactly what reunions do. They celebrate life. Here we are – alive, living in perhaps different parts of the world, but alive and we share a common experience. We were class mates. God in his infinite wisdom – designed our lives to intersect in a particular time and place. And nothing will ever take that from us.
Not long ago I was in an antique store (if I may say parenthetically here – no better indication of getting older than hanging around antique stores) when I spotted the famous poster of Farah Fawcett. You remember the one – her in her one piece bathing suit looking at the camera with that flowing hair and white toothy smile. If some of the ladies here don’t remember that poster – I can promise you all the guys do. The picture was from 1976 and I’m sure it hung in many of the men’s bedroom walls when we were juniors and seniors. But as I looked at that poster I thought about how Farah Fawcett had recently passed away after a lengthy illness that ravished her body and beauty. She’s gone. But here in this picture she is captured forever in her beauty. We may always remember her as she was in that famous pose.
There is obviously something very misleading about that image. And it is that life lasts forever. The endless summer, the eternal youth, the perpetual senior year, the party that never ends, the life that never grows old. The image of Farah Fawcett in light of her tragic illness and passing is a hard reminder of our mortality and we come here today to accept the reality that life is not forever. Many of our classmates – who we remember in the hallways of Southern Junior High and Estes and Foust and Longfellow and all the places where we lived our youth together are gone. And so as we remember them – and as we celebrate their shortened lives, we should celebrate our life – because we know it does not last forever. The Bee Gees sang “Stayin Alive”. “whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother you’re stayin alive – stayin alive. Feel the city breakin and everybody shakin and we’re stayin alive – stayin alive”. How ironic that just a couple of weeks ago, Robin Gibbs – who co-wrote that famous song – died after his own battle with cancer.
Perhaps no generation before or since ours has looked upon themselves with such a sense of permanency. We were the baby boomers – going to change the world – make love and not war. We would have seasons in the sun – forever. I have often thought that the many educators in our lives that we owe so much – failed to teach us one thing – our lives will not go on forever. I heard one speaker once say the greatest lesson he learned in his life is what he learned from (of all things) potato salad. As he put it – when we die people will gather and say nice things about us, some may even cry over us. But then they are going over to the church and eat potato salad.
So where does all this leave us? Are we to give up as we embrace the reality of growing older? Are we to be depressed and despondent over our mortality? Absolutely not. What we should do – is what we know how to do perhaps better than any generation ever – live. And let’s live now. Let us really ‘continue this journey’.
You know if we are anything we are survivors. I think our memorial of our fallen classmates needs to be done in such a way that we reflect upon our own lives. And when we think about us – we have to agree we are survivors. Think about it – We lived through bomb shelter scares, nuclear attack drills, school lunches, paddles, jock straps, jock checks, jock snaps, mandatory showers, bombardment, student street crossing guards (by the way – can you imagine us doing that today – putting a stick in the hands of a twelve-year-old and tell them to go stop traffic?) playing football in the streets, riding our bikes all over town without helmets, second-hand smoke, bullies, black and white television without remote control, telephones with cords. As boys we survived Wood Shop and with the exception of Ben Hill managed without cutting off fingers and the girls managed Home Economics without sewing theirs together. We went barefoot – stepped on rusty nails, climbed trees, and swam in the Sportscenter pool all without catching hepatitis. We survived spin the bottle, post office and truth or dare. We rode in cars without car seats or seat belts, if we wanted to hear a certain song on the radio we had to wait until Kirk Kirkpatrick would play it during “Memory Marathon” on WVJS.
But on a more serious note we have survived even more than that. We survived the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. We have survived earthquakes, tornadoes, and 911. For many of our class there has been survival of failed marriages, broken relationships and broken promises. Many of us have survived raising children and some have had to survive the heartbreak of burying them. We have survived incredible wealth and spectacular failures. We have survived unemployment, and personal illness.
We survived. Brothers and sisters, classmates of 1977 here we are – survivors!
I believe if we could talk to the classmates who we are memorializing today – they would say something like – enjoy the time you have – you may not have tomorrow. Live in the moment – continue the journey. Now before you think I am about to suggest you live up in some hedonistic, self-centered way let me say this: the thing that those veterans I witnessed in Louisville taught me was how blessed we are to be able to say to those we love – I love you! How blessed we are to be able to hold our children, perhaps tell our parents how much they mean to us – embrace a friend, love thy neighbor, forgive an enemy. That’s what we are left to do – that, I believe would be the message of our deceased classmates.
My favorite verse of scripture is John thirteen and fourteen. There we find Jesus foretelling Peter’s public denial- foretelling Peter’s failure, his weakness, his sin. Peter must have been personally devastated at the thought that he would fail his Lord so spectacularly. But Jesus, perhaps sensing Peter’s sorrow says in the next line – broken up by the chapter heading at 14 but really should be read straight through – “Let not your heart be troubled, believe in God believe also in me, in my father’s house are many rooms – and I go to prepare a place for you.” It may very well be that Peter experienced survival guilt. Perhaps he on occasions wondered why he was spared. Why did Jesus die and he live on? Some of us may feel that way as we reflect on our deceased classmates. I suggest you hear the words of Jesus as he says: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
Do you remember how we would make plans to meet up with each other at different places when we were in school together? We would say, “Hey! Meet me at the Sportscenter” or “Meet me at Rash Stadium”. We’d meet up at the ice rink or cruise Wesleyan Park Plaza or CW Skeeter’s Boogie Shack. We always had a plan and place to meet up with each other. As I close I would like to share with you a story I heard about a father and his family and the way they decided to say good-bye to one another if they were to be separated for any period of time. As we enjoy our reunion this weekend – we realize that our numbers will continue to dwindle and that there is no guarantee we will see each other again. It was in that spirit that this family had decided rather than say the words “good-bye” when they parted company the father would say, “I’ll see you just inside .. ” and his children and wife would respond, “the middle eastern gate.” In the bible heaven is described as having four walls with three gates on each. This family realized that if they were to be separated by death – they would have a plan to meet up again in heaven – just inside the middle eastern gate. The father would say, “I’ll meet you just inside” and the others would respond, “the middle eastern gate.”
As we leave here today – let us do so remembering life is not permanent, and since there is no guarantee about our next reunion lets enjoy the time we have and continue the journey as long as God allows. And after our time is done -let’s not say good-bye but – ‘ I’ll meet you just inside ‘ – (class respond) ‘the middle eastern gate’.