April 1, 2009
Bryn Mawr college, class of 1962 in Memoriam
Eleanor’s (Snouck Hurgronje Wikborg) funeral was held in the beautiful 13th-century cathedral of the charming old world town of Strängnäs, Sweden, located about an hour west of Stockholm. Eleanor and Erland bought an apartment for their retirement there and planned to divide their time during the year between Strängnäs and the 14th-century tower house that they renovated in Corciano, Italy. For the reception afterward, where speeches were made in Eleanor’s memory, Erland asked me to read excerpts that Eleanor had selected for her funeral from the traditional hymn ”Abide With Me” by H.F. Lyte (1793-1847) which was also sung by the congregation in Swedish during the service. I prepared the talk, included below, for the reception to present the quotation that Eleanor had chosen. (Priscilla Perkins Grew)
Eleanor was my best friend for 50 years. She was like a sister to me, the sister that I had never had since I was an only child—an older sister who had always gone on ahead of me in life, so that I was always learning from her. I remember our first time going to the movies in the historic Bryn Mawr Theater in the fall of 1958. As we walked out of the Theater afterward, she said ”What did you think was the moral of the story? What was the director trying to say?” But before Bryn Mawr I had only gone to movies to be entertained; it had not occurred to me that you were supposed to analyze and discuss them! Eleanor introduced me to that wonderful world of discussing, analyzing and thinking about what you have seen in a play or movie. She introduced me to the search for meaning.
So what is the ”moral of the story” of Eleanor’s funeral on this beautiful April day of spring flowers and renewal? What do her life and death mean to us? Each of us will have a very personal and private answer to those questions.
Eleanor very carefully planned her own funeral service and intentionally chose the texts that were read and sung today. So what was she trying to say to us in planning her own service? We know that she had a special appreciation for the power of words and that she devoted her career to the written word, so her choices are important. Erland has asked me to read in English Eleanor’s selection of some of the verses in the hymn ”Abide With Me” that we sang in the cathedral earlier today. Why did she choose this particular hymn? ”Abide With Me” means stay with me, remain with me, live with me—don’t leave me alone. I think Eleanor chose this hymn because it confronts head-on the loneliness and helplessness of illness, dying and death. I think her message to us in
choosing these words is that we each need to find something to hold on to that will comfort us when we face that ultimate loneliness. Eleanor never liked to be left alone very long. I think that is why the words ”Abide With Me” – stay with me—were so powerful to her. In facing our own loneliness, we may not choose the words of a Victorian hymn like Eleanor did. We may want something more contemporary—but Eleanor’s message to us is that we need to search for something that we can rely on for meaning and comfort. We need to invest in our relationships that help to shield us against loneliness, and we need to seek sources of comfort that can sustain us even beyond.
As we each examine what Eleanor’s life means to us, as we reflect on the legacy she leaves us that transcends her death, as we celebrate the transmission of what she accomplished in her life to the next generations, I would like to read a few lines from another poem by Henry Lyte, the same author who wrote ”Abide With Me.” These words were written as he himself faced terminal illness. His poem ”Declining Days” touches on what Eleanor wanted to accomplish in her service today.
But might I leave behind
Some blessing for my fellows, some fair trust
To guide, to cheer, to elevate my kind
When I am in the dust.
And finally, here are the words Eleanor selected from ”Abide With Me” for this remembrance (verses 1 and 2, and parts of
verses 7 and 8 as combined by Eleanor):
Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. — Luke xxiv.29
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.