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Eulogy for my father, Vernon Lee Souders, 1936 – 2014

Published 2015-07-04
This is one of my favorite essays

Delivered at the Merna Community Cemetery, July 2nd, 2015

Dad was not a Churchy man and while he liked to discuss religion, he didn’t often talk about God. He liked church and respected pastors and learned clergy. He liked to discuss philosophy and history. I don’t recall his ever discussing directly his own beliefs in life or death or God or afterlife.

So it’s hard to stand at his gravesite and give a spiritual sense of meaning to his death.

I do remember him saying once that he believed in energy, (conservation thereof, as in the 2nd law of thermodynamics) and that our energy flowed always through the world. He said more than once that our bodies are vessels.

I remember another time his echoing a line of Jewish thought that we live on after death through our descendents, and through the lives of the people we have touched.

I think in both these senses Dad is now in heaven: that he lives now, around us, in the energy of the world, and in our hearts. In at least this sense, Dad is alive: he is simultaneously free and he is home.

Dad was not a heavenly man, he was an Earthly man. Literally. He kind of had dirt in his blood. He was the son of farmers and this land — THIS land around us now — was his bone and marrow. He loved soil and rocks and water and growing things and fresh air and wild animals. In all my best memories of Dad, we are outdoors.

I may be reaching here but I think Dad believed in Spinoza’s God, that God himself was of the Earth and coterminal with the entire universe. I don’t think this God is incompatible with the Biblical God and I don’t think Dad did either.

Vern’s God was visible in the land and in landscapes, and He wrote His scripture in the land itself; His media were rock and water and time. Dad knew how to read that scripture. After his death last fall we received message after message from his former colleagues who all praised his ability to read the land. Sometimes in those exact words.

In this vein I want to offer a poem, and a passage from Scripture. (The regular scripture, not the rock kind.)


Selections from Gravel, by Mary Oliver

Suggested by his colleague and family friend, Jim Swinehart

when death carts me off to the bottomlands, when i begin the long work of rising—

death, whoever and whatever you are, tallest king of
tall kings, grant me these wishes: unstring my bones;
let me be not one thing but all things, and wondrously
scattered; shake me free from my name. let the wind, and
the wildflowers, and the catbird never know it. let
time loosen me like the bead of a flower from its wrappings
of leaves. let me begin the changes, let me—

can you imagine a world without certainty?
the wind rises the wind falls.

the gravels of the world,
the stones of the world
are in their proper places.

the vast, writhing
worms of the sea
are in their places.

the white gulls
on the wet rocks
are in their places.

is certainty.

It is the nature of stone
to be satisfied.
It is the nature of water
to want to be somewhere else.

Everywhere we look:
the sweet guttural swill of the water
tumbling.
Everywhere we look:
the stone, basking in the sun,

or offering itself
to the golden lichen.

It is our nature not only to see
that the world is beautiful

but to stand in the dark, under the stars,
or at noon, in the rainfall of light,

frenzied,
wringing our hands,

half-mad, saying over and over:

what does it mean, that the world is beautiful—
what does it mean?

The child asks this,
and the determined, laboring adult asks this—

both the carpenter and the scholar ask this,
and the fisherman and the teacher;

both the rich and the poor ask this
(maybe the poor more than the rich)

and the old and the very old, not yet having figured it out,
ask this
desperately

standing beside the golden-coated field rock,
or the tumbling water,
or under the stars—

what does it mean?
what does it mean?

Listen, I don’t think we’re going to rise
in gauze and halos.
Maybe as grass, and slowly.
Maybe as the long-leaved, beautiful grass

I have known, and, you have known—
or the pine tree—
or the dark rocks of the zigzag creek
hastening along—

or the silver rain—

or the hummingbird.

I look up
into the faces of the stars,
into their deep silence.

This the poem of goodbye.
And this is the poem of don’t know.

My hands touch the lilies
then withdraw;

my hands touch the blue iris
then withdraw;

and I say, not easily but carefully—
the words round in the mouth, crisp on the tongue—

dirt, mud, stars, water— I know you as if you were myself.

How could I be afraid?


Selections from Ecclesiastes

Offered without commentary

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

...

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.

All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?

So … there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?


Karl​ delivered a well-researched eulogy for his life; mine was for his death.

It was a beautiful day, perfect weather on the hillside cemetery. I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and fellowship from all Dad’s people: his colleagues, his childhood neighbors, friends from all over, his family by blood, his family by marriage. At sunset Karl and I spread some of his remains over the site of the former Kellenbarger-Souders homestead.