The Celebration of My Mother’s Death and Life
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning . . . .” (Eccl. 7:8)
Death produces heart-felt sorrow and a vacuum every time it strikes. As the daughter of a funeral director and the wife of a minister, I have been around death all of my life. In almost seven decades, I have attended scores of funerals and ministered to countless families who have suffered loss. Although the tragedy of outliving your child or your husband seems to trump all other losses, I feel acutely now the pain and emptiness engulfing me because of the loss of my mother. In fact, now I am an orphan—both mother and father have entered the heavenly throne room as have my husband’s parents. My mother was 91 years of age—a long and full life, but still not enough for me! I did not want to let her go! She has been my prayer warrior, counselor, encourager, and friend. I have been talking to her almost every night just before I go to bed for more years than I want to remember. I must still remind myself that her home-going is not a cruel blow from the Almighty to hurt and discourage me, nor is it an untimely sorrow since my precious mother’s days were numbered from the day she came into this world. God knew exactly what He planned for her to do. When she completed that plan, He called her into eternal rest and unending rewards for her faithful service to Him. For Mother, death was not a cruel reaper but a scheduled chariot to take her through the heavenly gates into the presence of our wonderful Savior and to a reunion with my wonderful father, who has been patiently waiting her arrival.
Thursday, September 19
The call from my brother came early Thursday morning at the very time when for as long as I can remember my mother would go into the smallest and most private room of her house and begin her prayer time. She would spend more than an hour going through her three generations of family members and a host of others standing in need of prayer—not with perfunctory ritual but with detailed requests! That September morning my mother slipped out of this world and into heaven to continue her intercession at the feet of the blessed Jesus! My loss of an earthly prayer warrior has been filled with a heavenly intercessor! With the assistance of the heavenly messengers, Mom will still intercede for me and my family, and perhaps some of you, in specific ways.
Yes, the tears flowed as my husband tenderly held me while the initial emotions ran their course. He offered me a pass from chapel, but I knew that being with God’s people, listening to the music of worship and hearing what I knew would be a powerful message from one of my favorite preachers—Dr. Steven Smith—would be like the balm of Gilead, soothing my hurts and turning my focus to the mercies of the Lord. Yes, being in chapel was just what I needed to fortify my soul and prepare me for this opportunity to honor my mother.
My husband, as the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, ordered all Southwestern flags to half-mast in loving memory of my mother. Not only had our family experienced a great personal loss, but our seminary and other Southern Baptist Convention agencies and her local church would miss her prayers and financial undergirding as well as her many notes of encouragement. Her friends and the staff of the Lambeth House where she lived during the last decade would miss her smile and sweet ministries to them.
Then my husband and I hosted a luncheon for African leaders seeking our help with their seminary in Nigeria. Here, too, the Lord used these two godly men, who have personally endured so much suffering and discouragement, to give me a sense of the importance of my mother to the kingdom and to encourage me in these days of transition. We talked about the reasons for such pain at the passing of an aged saint of the Lord—one who had lived a full and fruitful life for the Lord Jesus. They described her death as the “loss of a library”—without her presence among us a reservoir of history would be lost. Truer words were never spoken! My mother remembered so many details from the past. She wrote my granddaughters a special letter every week, reminding them of a bit of historical trivia, teaching them something about an important character trait, or sharing some family history! She endeared herself to these darling great-granddaughters with the “pink letters” that came addressed to each of them every week.
During the afternoon we received emails, flowers and plants, calls, and many expressions of loving concern as we hurriedly adjusted the weekend schedules and prepared for our journey. Tomorrow we will fly to New Orleans to begin our family transitions.
Friday, September 20
Friday evening the family began to gather in the gracious parlor of the Lambeth House, mother’s New Orleans home for the last decade. The gracious staff prepared and served a lovely dinner of all Mother’s favorite foods: shrimp gumbo, wedge salad, steak, baked potato with the trimmings, green beans, and coconut cake. Each was delicious, and we all knew what was coming because in our telephone conversations and the family letters, Mother always described in detail her delight with these items when they were served at mealtime. How thoughtful for the staff to remember what she enjoyed most and let us experience memories of her delight in such simple things as a favorite food! My brother Chuck had purchased copies of the Times Picayune with Mother’s obituary for each of us, and Rhonda has prepared her world-famous schedule for all the events of the weekend. Mother always felt so special when Rhonda prepared such a schedule for every out-of-town visitor coming to spend some time with her. It enabled Mother to send a message to the person coming that his visit was anticipated and that he would be honored with a special schedule of meals and entertainment.
Saturday, September 21
With the exception of two grandchildren who would join us in Beaumont, all three generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered at the funeral home Saturday morning. Rhonda had selected one of Mother’s beautiful knit suits—purchased for her by my daddy years before. Her hair was coiffed and her nails manicured; she wore her pearl earrings and the diamond drop given to her years ago by my daddy. She looked beautiful and younger than her 91 years! The casket spray was exquisite. Alone and in groups and then all together, we had time as a family, closing with a prayer of thanksgiving for Mother’s life.
Entering the beautiful Leavell Chapel of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where Mother had enjoyed celebrations and worship, I was not prepared for the beautiful array of floral tributes all across the front. Robbin, Wanda, Vanee, and many helpers from New Orleans Seminary had created an aesthetically beautiful and fragrant setting. I had time to look closely at each floral piece and drink in the beauty of the flowers and feel the love of friends who honored Mother in this way. The casket arrived and was placed in the chapel. To its right was the chair where my mother had spent virtually every day for the last decade doing her ministry. My brother had it brought to the chapel and placed beside it her bag of notecards—the most important part of her note ministry—and her prayer basket (I have already posted how this fit into my mother’s life). The music provided by faculty of New Orleans Seminary was already playing in the background, and friends began coming. My mother would have been humbled; I was awestruck as pastors, denominational executives, seminary faculty and staff and students, friends, came even from other states to comfort us and to honor my mother. We listened to their gracious words; we felt their hugs; and we rested in the fellowship that only comes from other believers.
The service itself was carefully planned by Chuck and Rhonda. There were her favorite hymns, Scripture she had requested, prayers and testimonies from children and grandchildren, a message in music from Jonathan Key that seemed to come from heaven itself, and a God-anointed message from my brother. Yes, she was honored with words of praise, but even more important to her, the Lord Jesus was lifted up. The plan of salvation was clearly presented, and there was no doubt about the priorities of Doris Weisiger Kelley!
Following the service New Orleans Seminary served our family and out-of-town guests a menu of Mother’s favorites: Rice and brown gravy, pinto beans, mac and cheese (the best I have ever had), vegetable medley, roast beef—I cannot remember all the menu items! But I do know that red velvet cake and pecan pie were part of the dessert buffet! Miss Lee and Miss Alice certainly outdid themselves, and I was reminded how many times when Mother was not well enough to attend an event at the seminary these sweet ladies would prepare a “special plate” and send it to her.
In the afternoon, we all began our journey to Beaumont and the family burial plot. En route we talked about Mother; we stopped for coffee; we went immediately to a favorite family Mexican restaurant (Casa Ole) for dinner.
Sunday, September 21
Paige and I were blessed to host a family brunch at the Beaumont Country Club, the place for many Kelley celebrations over the last half a century. We shared memories around our tables. Jillian and Carissa from our Pecan Manor Staff had prepared special laminated placemats with scanned family photographs from events over the years. We placed one at every setting as a memento of the occasion. We had a lovely buffet and their famous pecan ice cream balls for dessert.
Then we made our way to Claybar Kelley-Watkins Funeral Home. My father and mother owned this business and built the chapel in which Mother’s service was to be held. The Claybar family, who now own and operate the funeral home, mirror my parents’ spirit of excellence and service. The chapel was beautifully appointed, and more than 3 dozen floral arrangements were surrounding Mother’s casket. Again friends came from Houston, Fort Worth, New Orleans, and throughout the Golden Triangle to honor Mother and comfort our family. The service was a beautiful tribute to Mother, but every part of the worship time pointed to Christ and lifted Him up.
As we traveled in procession to the cemetery Daddy had acquired during his last years of overseeing this business he built through the decades, we had a beautiful day with sunshine and gentle temperatures. Three generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren joined with a few close family friends to commit Mother’s earthly temple to burial, knowing that she is already in the presence of the blessed Jesus enjoying the blessings of heaven. The red granite tombstone had been set after my daddy’s interment with only the date of Mother’s death to be added. On the other side of the stone, the family verse is inscribed:
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh 24:15).
And that summarizes the life Charles and Doris Kelley shared together on this earth. They faithfully served the Lord Jesus until each was translated into His presence where their service and worship of Him will continue throughout eternity. And they instilled in me—and every member of our family—the desire to do the same thing! Even so, come, Lord Jesus, but until that glorious day, may be faithfully follow the course of life set by our beloved parents.
This collection of poems and essays were very special to Doris Kelley. I hope it gives you a glimpse of the joy that she was to her family and the joy that they were to her: