I gave a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral six days ago. Before the transcript of the eulogy below, I want to make some preliminary background remarks.
My father, Kelvin Benn, was born on May 14 1931 and died on January 7 2020 after recurrent bouts of pneumonia. He had emphysema and a rare blood cancer that a small fraction of patients with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma present with.
After the usual indignities of being a hospital patient, falls in and out of hospital, being on oxygen, and having intra-venous antibiotics a couple of times, Dad began eating less and became increasingly unwilling to take medications. The intention was still to try to get him well enough to be able to leave hospital and go into a nursing home. The reality is that he had lost the will to live by late 2019 and certainly by early 2020.
I spent time with Dad in hospital from January 1 to January 6. We said our goodbyes. I felt there was a good chance I would never see him again. I returned home, uncertain of his future, intending to return again soon. My wife, kids and I had a few days planned in Melbourne from January 8. I thought that if Dad’s condition deteriorated I would at least be able to get back to him (in Tasmania) at short notice. He died late in the afternoon of January 7…
My mother died in 2002 after failed heart valve replacement surgery. Dad married again in 2006. Dawn (dad’s wife) gave a eulogy followed in turn by my sister Julie and I. In the last part of the eulogy, Julie and I took turns reading short extracts from a few of my father’s short funeral sermons that resonated with both of us.
What comes through from these extracts is a focus on relationships, a requirement for personal responsibility, freedom and the necessity of choice, a consideration of the consequences of our actions, and a mandate to do good whenever possible. This resonated with my sister and I and aligns with my own philosophical position, derived from existentialism and consequentialist ethics.
It also gives me some hope for the future of our species that an atheist and a Christian can agree on so much.
What follows is the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral on January 13 at Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston. My theme was commonality, something we desperately need to focus more on if we are collectively to survive the decades to come.
It’s easy to focus on the differences between people. Dad and I were different in many ways. But we also had a lot in common.
We were both in The St John Ambulance Brigade from an early age, attending sporting and other community events as first aiders, and both becoming cadet sergeants.
Along with the anchor tattoo, Dad also had the S-J-A-B tattoo to prove it!
We both studied at theological college, and enjoyed having philosophical discussions.
We both took our work seriously.
Further to Julie’s comments, Dad often used to say that rights come with responsibilities. As a teenager, mostly I would just internally groan at that…
However, I’ve found myself increasingly saying this sort of thing in recent years to my kids and others, along with: “That music is too loud!”
Then one day, I realised that I had become my father. 🙂
Something I also remember as a young teenager was that if I was ever rude to my mother, out would come the belt!
Of course, those occurrences were few and far between! 😉
Dad’s work as a Uniting Church minister kept him well occupied and, as Julie noted, when he wasn’t out preaching or providing pastoral care, he was often up working late in his office, especially on Saturdays, preparing the sermon for the following day.
Even after retirement, Dawn can probably relate to Dad not straying far from the office for long periods!
Some of my favourite memories of Dad are from beach holidays in the seventies, the two of us body surfing or snorkelling.
As Julie also noted, holidays like those at Port Hughes were good times too, even if my first jetty catch was a puffer fish!
Another fond memory is from 1998, when Dad and I stayed up until the wee hours in Mallala watching a meteor shower as the Earth ploughed through the debris left by a comet.
Dad had a good sense of humour.
In an email to me in 2016 he said:
“I have a few things I want to share with my GP … Will let you know if he thinks I may not live to be 100 after all!!”
When he was in hospital recently, a measure of his wellness was the frequency of his witty remarks.
Dad gave a Probus club talk in 2015 titled “Strange Things that Happen at Funerals”. In one anecdote from that talk he says:
One day the undertaker picked me up to conduct a funeral for a man he knew, so I asked him to tell me something about him. “What was he like,” I asked. His answer stunned me: “This is the first decent thing he has done in his life,” I was told. “What about his family,” I asked. “They are all the same”, he replied. So, I thought I had better used the old, sterner burial service. Afterwards the family came up to me and said, “Lovely service, Father.” It just goes to show that you can never tell how people are going to react.
Like many fathers and sons, Dad and I had our disagreements and at times we hurt each other with words.
However, in a 2015 email exchange, in which we had disagreed on matters of belief, he said:
“Unless we are willing to be open to change, our thinking can only become stagnant. The older we get the more we realise how little we really know…or we have wasted a life. It has been a great blessing that we have always been able to be open and honest with one another.”
I’m sure there are times we could have been even more honest and open, but the point is to intend to do better.
I don’t think it would be a misrepresentation to say that Dad emphasised the social justice and pastoral care aspects of his faith.
He genuinely cared about people. The idea that “God is Love” became more important to Dad as time passed.
Julie’s daughter, Kate, recently found some of the funeral sermons Dad wrote. It seems appropriate to finish by reading some excerpts that resonated with both of us. At a time when so much of the world is divided, Dad’s words seem especially relevant.
“In our troubled world today we are witnessing what happens when over zealous people force their misguided views on others… We need to be aware of each other’s differences so that we will not make the fatal mistake of believing that we are right and God is on our side.
We come into this world and pass through it, leaving it either a happier & better place or a sadder & sorrier place. The choice is ours and so are the consequences of our choice.
Nobody else can live our life for us and nobody else can be held responsible for the way we live it. Freedom to choose & responsibility for actions are the two sides of the same coin.
Life is all about relationships and building relationships makes demands on us. Good relationships are costly. We are all far from perfect but we should always be striving to be better than we are.
As we think about somebody else’s death we cannot help thinking about our own life, and our accountability…to help people to become more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate, more honest, more understanding and more tolerant, more in tune with… one another.”
Thank you Dad for your life of service to others.