Mark and Sallie, members of my congregation, found out last month that their daughter had died in a car accident while studying abroad for a college semester. She was 21. With his permission, I share Mark’s words, which he offered at her funeral a few days ago.
I am Mark Smylie, father of Rachel Smylie. Rachel’s mother, Sallie, her sisters, Anna and Lauren, and her brother-in-law, Patrick, welcome you to this memorial service.
Thank you for being with us today. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers, your care and concern, your cards and calls, your contributions, your cookies and casseroles. Thank you for the beautiful flowers, the ribbons on the trees, and the luminaire that have lit our street and the front of our house each night for the past three-and-a-half weeks. For all the helping hands. We take great comfort in the support you have provided.
We thank the kind and caring people at the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the U.S. Embassy in Namibia, Travel Guard, the University of Michigan, and The Road Less Traveled.
We thank all who will lead this service today. Their names and relationships to Rachel are printed on the back of the service bulletin. And we thank those who brought food for the reception to follow this service.
Before going further, let us acknowledge that this is going to be tough, very tough. We must give ourselves permission to grieve and to cry. We must also feel comfortable to express joy, to smile, and yes, to laugh out loud. We are in a safe, loving, and comforting place. We must give each other permission to exhale.
So…. We come together today to mourn Rachel’s death. Let’s not paper over this. On April 7, Rachel died in a freak automobile accident while on spring break camping in a Namabian national park. She was on a study abroad semester at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Rachel was 21 years old, on top of the world, with a full life ahead of her. It is not supposed to be this way. It is not supposed to be that parents outlive their children. It is not supposed to be that a family comes together in this very sanctuary for one daughter’s wedding only to return four months later for another daughter’s memorial. This death is irrational, an absurdity. There is no sense to this. At the same time there is no anger, no blame. Only sadness.
We come not only to mourn. We come to worship and to give thanks. We gather to thank God for the gift of Rachel and her life among us. We gather to thank God for the difference Rachel made in our lives and in the lives of so many others. Ralph Williams, Rachel’s English professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in her memory: “We would not forego the joy she gave in order to be spared the pain of her loss, but only that joy could counterbalance it.” We thank God for this joy. We thank God for the assurance and comfort that death has not the last word, that the last word is God’s grace and the promise of everlasting life.
We also come together to commemorate a life well lived. And what a life. Rachel’s life was one of abundant activity and accomplishment. In classrooms of Oak Park’s schools and the University of Michigan. In chorus and on the piano bench. On the volleyball court and lacrosse field. In her sorority, Alpha Phi. In national and international travel.
It was a life of love. The love of family, friends, and strangers. She was a revelation of God’s love for us all.
It was a life of contagious joy. The mother of one of Rachel’s Cape Town friends described Rachel as a “force field of joy”. Indeed. Tall and blonde. Large and in charge. Fit and strong physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. She was fearless. That sense of humor and infectious laughter. That smile as wide and bright as African skies. Rachel was a young woman of large appetites for strange food, adventure, good times with friends, and a bit of mischief. She gave the best-ever hugs. She could belt out the tunes from her car and from the chorus risers. And boy, that girl could dance.
Rachel’s life was also one of care and service. She looked out for others from an early age. She went on church mission trips and she volunteered to serve people affected by HIV/AIDS. Her whole life, she lived the call: Do something everyday to make the world a little better place. Nicole Fish, Rachel’s kindergarten and 1st grade teacher at Whittier Elementary School remembers Rachel this way: “She cared deeply for all those around her and made an effort to help those who needed it the most.”. Nicole sent us a card that Rachel made for her because, Nicole wrote, “She thought I was having a bad day. It is incredible to me that a 6-year-old was so perceptive and took the time to try and cheer up a teacher having a long day.” Again, Ralph Williams remembers: “She had a deep sense of social justice, felt not so much FOR others as WITH others, from inside their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.”
Rachel’s life was one of growing spirituality and faith. She was making her way on that sometimes difficult and perplexing journey, formulating her beliefs, probing her uncertainties, making sense of church, and exploring her relationship with God. As you probably know, Rachel travelled to Tanzania during the summer between her junior and senior years of high school. It was a life-clarifying and focusing experience that helped Rachel understand who she is as a person and helped her form the contours of her relationships with God and with others. When she returned from Tanzania, Rachel got a tattoo. It was of a Swahili phrase: “Wamola ni moja”. This is the phrase that appears on Rachel’s memorial cards and wrist bands. It means: “Before God we are one”. This is what Rachel believed and how she lived. In God’s eyes we are all equal. We are all loved. We are all beneficiaries of God’s grace. And if we are all one before God, how can we love or treat any among us any less?
We could choose to let Rachel’s death diminish us, to see Rachel’s death as subtractive, as a loss. Instead, we choose to let Rachel’s life to lead us to make a difference. We choose to seize upon her life and see it in the affirmative, to recognize Rachel within and among us, to keep Rachel an active verb in our lives, a verb of the present and future tense. We choose to draw upon her as a source of unlimited energy and infinite hope and joy, to be open to the lessons she teaches us. And we choose to carry forward the example she sets for us: Love one another as God loves us. Do something every day to make the world a little better place. One of my father’s colleagues at Union Seminary in Richmond offered these words many years ago at the memorial service for his 28-year-old niece: “The last word is the grace of God that enables us to take whatever comes and to use it in the building of a life of beauty, wonder, and authenticity, that enables us even in the presence of this death to praise God and to enhance the meaning of human life.”
And Rachel would say: “Peace and blessings.”