For some people, attending a memorial service may be their first time worshiping with Quakers; for those who have joined a meeting later in life, their first time honoring a deceased Friend can be a powerful experience. But what exactly happens at a Quaker memorial—and how does it differ from funeral rites in other spiritual traditions? We spoke with several Friends who discussed the comfort they found in celebrating the life of a loved one while remaining open to the grief of their passing.
“One of the things that I would say that is very, very distinctive is the silence and reflection,” says Debbie B. Ramsey. Ample time is given not just for the family of the deceased to reflect and, if so led, share their memories, but for all in attendance. “In doing so, we become one in the departure of the person that the memorial is for.”
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Peter Murchison: Well, I will say that Quakers really do weddings and funerals well and most people that attend a wedding or Quaker funeral come away going, “Wow.” You know, “What was that all about?” Often more than half the people that will attend are not Quakers and very often they all come away saying, “I’d like to hear a little bit more about this. I’ve never had an experience like that.”
What to Expect at a Quaker Memorial Service
Carl Macgruder: So Quaker memorials are a marvelous way of memorializing, of remembering someone who has traveled among us, and so I think the Quaker memorial really, it’s a beautiful and very accessible way to honor those who have come before.
Debbie B. Ramsey: One of the things that I would say that is very, very distinctive is the silence and reflection. That with the Quaker memorials, I feel that ample time is given, for not just the family to reflect but those in attendance to reflect in like fashion, and I have noticed that in doing so we become one in the departure of the person that the memorial is for.
Lisa Graustein: I’ve been to a number of Quaker memorial services, some at a Quaker church and some at a Quaker meeting. Most of the ones I’ve been to have been part of unprogrammed meetings. What I appreciate about a Quaker memorial service is the acknowledgement that it is a time to honor the life that was lived, that each of us present holds some piece of the person that we have lost, and in many of the ones that I’ve been a part of there’s also a real focus on what do the people who are closest to the person who has passed really need in that moment. And so there’s a real tending to celebrating a life, being present with grief, and acknowledging those closest and what they might be needing from the community.
The History of a Memorial Minute
Carl: It usually starts with a memorial minute, and these memorial minutes used to be collected and Quakers had collections that were called “piety promoted” and they would write down the dying testimony of friends because it was felt that death was a final apotheosis, it was a final joining with God, and that as people got closer and closer to their dying, that their ministry was very spiritual and powerful. And so we have a memorial minute, which is not supposed to be sort of a curriculum vitae or a biography of the person, but it’s supposed to be a spiritual biography; it’s supposed to be how Spirit manifested in their life and how they were able to make Spirit available or visible to the rest of us.
The Structure of a Quaker Memorial Service
Lisa: So the ones that I have participated in, often we meet in a meeting room, we’re sitting in a circle or around each other. Sometimes the family members or those closest will come in a little after everyone else has gathered so they’re walking into a held space. Whoever has care of memorial will often stand up and explain how things are going to go, that there will be a period of open worship, that friends are invited to share memories of the person who has passed, that at a certain point, the memorial will close, and then often there’s a time of fellowship or being with or ways to be with those who are closest to the person who’s passed. And then people speak out of the silence, and what I love about it is unlike times when I’ve written eulogies for funerals where I’m trying to singularly sum up all of somebody’s life, in a Quaker memorial I just have to speak to the part that was truest for me about my relationship with a person who has passed.
Kerry Wiessman: I will say that they are almost always what we call “popcorn meetings.” You know, they are almost always people speaking one after another because they don’t want to miss the opportunity to speak. But even when people don’t leave too much silence in between, they’re usually very, very rich and I think they’re also one of the only ways that other people in our community ever experience Quakers.
Learning the Fullness of a Person Through a Quaker Service
Martin Kraftt: My grandmother was not really a Quaker but she would go to meetings with my family and so we did a Quaker service and it was really moving to have all these people who had been in her life have a chance to speak in front of the group. So that all these people whose lives she had touched were able to hear from everyone else and and we could really see more of her as a person by hearing from all these different, you know, facets of her of her life. And it was a very cathartic grieving process, you know, for this person I loved to hear all the ways in which she had touched other people’s lives.
Kerry: You know, just the stories that people tell and the fond remembrances are really—tend to be joyful and they’re also sometimes lessons to be learned from their lives. We learned a lot about the people who have left that we didn’t know about, and sometimes that’s really exciting and also helps us to understand perhaps ways that we might move forward. I really like them.
- Can you think of an impactful experience you’ve had at a Quaker memorial service?
- Take a moment to remember and celebrate the life of someone important to you who has passed.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
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