What will they say about you when you're gone?
I attended a funeral this past week of a woman named Sarah Lewis, the widow of my childhood rabbi, Albert Lewis. A 92-year-old pillar of her community, she was eloquent, brilliant, devoted and religious.
The service was sparse and simple. Mostly prayers and thoughts. First, several of her grandchildren spoke, followed by her two daughters and her son.
Each of them mentioned something they had learned from their mother or grandmother. A life lesson that was indelibly etched in their hearts.
One grandson spoke about her kindness and how she lent him money to buy a car -- on "very favorable terms" -- meaning when he could afford to pay her back, he did.
Her eldest daughter spoke about how her mother's wonderful and devoted marriage set an example for the next generation.
Her youngest daughter laughed at how she used to get, as a holiday gift, a book of stamps, because, her mother said, "they will come in very handy when you send letters."
And her son told poignant stories of how his mother bravely broke up neighborhood fights, made him wear a coat even on a 75-degree day in the winter -- because, she said, "it's a winter 75 degrees!" -- and insisted he "clap!" at a neighborhood parade, to show recognition for those marching, warning him that TV was turning his generation into passive observers.
He also told of how his father, early in his parents' marriage, had a bout with cancer and began to withdraw from the family, fearing he was dying and not wanting the kids to miss him when he was gone. And how his mother firmly but lovingly reminded her husband, "How do you want us to remember you?" -- as a kind and caring patriarch, or a distant, removed one?
By the end of the service, everyone had laughed and cried. It was clear a life had been well-lived, had touched countless others and had left behind warm and comforting memories.
Contrast that with an obituary that ran in the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal this past week:
"Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick born Jan. 4, 1935, and died alone on (Aug.) 30, 2013. She is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible."
The obituary, submitted by her children, went on to blast the woman as mean and abusive:
Everyone she met, adult or child, was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.
Far from the tears shed at the funeral I attended, this woman's offspring were glad she was gone:
"We celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the afterlife reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure."
Wow. I guess "may she rest in peace" is out of the question.
You wonder how awful this woman had to be to be memorialized this way. According to an Associated Press account, the children had been removed from her care in the 1960s and had been estranged for more than 30 years. Their case was so awful that it helped lead to legislation in Nevada allowing children to sever ties to abusive parents.
"Everything in there was completely true," Patrick Reddick told the AP. He called his mother a "wicked, wicked witch" and said that while the main purpose of the obituary was to bring attention to child abuse, it was also to "shame her a little bit."
Still, this was three decades since they'd had to deal with her. The social norm when someone dies is to shout the good and whisper the bad -- or at the very least, say nothing -- part of what is suggested by the term "paying your respects."
But as Johnson-Reddick proves, that doesn't govern every death. Or every life. And the abuse you dish out may come back to you.
Most of what we do in this world is a rehearsal for our funeral. No matter how much you say, write or decree, in the end, you are summed up in speech and print by others, their memories, their impressions.
What will they say about you after you're gone? The only similarity between these two mothers is that they were eulogized not by a list of accomplishments, but by how they treated others. Something to keep in mind if you're thinking about your legacy.
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. E-mail, email@example.com.