Funeral service sounds wakeup call

Column by Jim Bishop

Attending a funeral isn’t all tears and sorrow.

I came away from a funeral service for Kenneth Seitz, Sr., 91, of Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in Harrisonburg, with a fresh sense of hope and resolve to seize the moment, recognizing that we won’t pass this way again.

The service, held June 10 at Mount Clinton Mennonite Church west of the city, was rather lengthy, but incredibly moving, upbeat, tinged with humor, and most certainly worshipful. Emphases on family, community and on celebrating a life well-lived were dominant themes.

I wanted to be present not only out of respect for Kenneth but especially because of my long association with his son Ken Seitz Jr. and spouse Kass (Hunsberger) Seitz. Our friendship was sparked in 1967 when Anna and I lived in a tiny apartment separated across (thin) walls from theirs in a house in Elkhart, Ind. We quickly became kindred spirits and kept in touch ever since in spite of their many moves. Ken and Kass are currently country directors in Beirut, Lebanon, with Mennonite Central Committee.

Attendees joined in one accord in singing vigorously, “O, For a Thousand Tongues,” and indeed, it almost sounded like a thousand choristers had packed the sanctuary.

I can’t envision a funeral without lots of singing. This one was filled with music – a capella songs of praise, special selections by a local mixed quartet, and a stirring recorded medley near the close by the St. Joseph Valley Camerata Singers arranged and conducted by son David Seitz of Mishawaka, Ind.

Ken Jr. gave a stirring, down-to-earth tribute to his dad on behalf of the family.

“Dad nurtured a strong sense of following God’s call for his life,” Ken noted. That “call” included leaving the family farm in eastern Pennsylvania to move to Harrisonburg for schooling – EMU class of ’54 – two decades of mission work in Mexico City with Franconia Mennonite Conference, pastoring congregations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia and chaplaincy work in several locations, including Rockingham Memorial Hospital.

“Dad Seitz – believer, convinced Anabaptist, evangelist, preacher, pastor, chaplain, volunteer (especially at Gift and Thrift in his later years), father, husband, grandfather, advocate for the poor and downtrodden, gardener, supporter of Palestinians and Israelis, ever restless, ever centered. Always certain and yet never fully sure. That’s our dad.

“With all the admonition and teaching we received from Dad, I, at least, could never accuse him of preaching one thing and practicing another. And that’s a tribute,” Ken said.

Ken’s closing comment especially touched me: “Thank you, Dad, for your life and for giving life, in many different ways, to so many people. Among his final utterances these four words: ‘Peace! Hope! Joy! Assurance!'”

A brief interment in the Mount Clinton cemetery across the road from the church followed the service.

I stood there in the hot sun, listening to the quartet singing “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and observed family members seated in front of the casket with heads bowed, lost in thought. I surveyed the soundless white tombstones bearing names of those who had gone before. They spoke volumes in that sacred moment.

I thought of the unusually warm early March day ten years earlier, serving as a pallbearer for the casket carrying my dad to his final resting place in the Blooming Glen (Pa.) Mennonite Church cemetery. Just before the casket was lowered into the ground, family members placed daisies on the lid – Mom’s favorite flower.

I recalled words from the tribute I presented at Dad’s memorial service:

“If Dad could somehow give his own eulogy, he would tell us, the living, to give each other bouquets – real flowers and genuine affirmations – while we’re alive, to savor the present moment and to not worry unduly about things we can’t change.

“Even now, I hear Dad saying, ‘Tell your spouse, children and other special people in your lives that you love them, and say it often. Spend time with them now, while you can, so that a time doesn’t come when you look back with regret on what might have been.'”

I followed with a quote by Richard Wong: “Bless our home, father, that we cherish the bread before there is none, discover each other before we leave, and enjoy each other while we have time.”

As sad as these occasions are – sometimes tragic, given the circumstances surrounding some deaths – they help remind us of our own mortality, that each of us is moving toward the finish line. We don’t know our allotted time, but how essential it is that we savor the moment and redeem the time, asking what is truly important, and to live life to the fullest in light of eternity.

Soon after his beloved wife Grace died at Christmas, 2007, Kenneth Seitz Sr. was diagnosed with liver cancer and was told he likely had only several months to live. One thing was certain: He was ready to go.

My hope and prayer is that we all are.

Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be reached at bishopj@emu.edu.

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