Memorial ceremony brings university and families together

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Augusta University students, staff and faculty members, along with families of deceased family members, attend the university’s first annual memorial ceremony at the teardrop on the Summerville campus on April 21. (Photo: Shellie Smitley)

By Shellie Smitley | Contributor

The bell tolled 10 times, April 21, representing the lives of the Augusta University students, staff and faculty members who died between March 1, 2015, and April 1, 2016.

The tolling of the bell was part of the university’s first annual memorial ceremony, held at the teardrop at the Summerville campus, celebrating the lives of deceased family members. 

“The thing about families is that they come together in greatest need, they come together when one of their own has been lost,” President Brooks Keel said. “This university, although much bigger than most families, is in every sense of the word a family.” 

The ceremony began with Ruth Berry, an Augusta resident, providing a musical prelude on a cello that included pieces written by J.S. Bach. Jeff Flowers, director of pastoral counseling, said the Dean of Student Life, Scott Wallace, selected this year’s music. 

“We believe music should be a part,” Flowers said. “Next year and in years to come, we hope the students will come and play from our music school.” 

Family members were given a butterfly as a token that the university recognized their loss and honored the life of their loved one. (Photo: Shellie Smitley)
Family members were given a butterfly as a token that the university recognized their loss and honored the life of their loved one. (Photo: Shellie Smitley)

Keel welcomed the crowd of nearly 65 people and Toby, the dog of deceased faculty member David Joseph Mascaro. Flowers read an invocation, and then family members and representatives, were welcomed to step forward and place a white rose in a bowl of water, as the name of their loved one was announced. For the deceased who had no family members who attended the ceremony, student representatives came forward and placed the white roses in the bowl. Each family member was given a butterfly as a token that the university recognizes their loss and honors the life of their loved one. 

“Today is a celebration,” Keel said. “We are not celebrating the loss, rather we are celebrating the life; we are celebrating the memory of individuals over the past year, of family members, who we have lost.”

Alicia Stewart, an employee of the advisory council, read the names of the staff members who have died. She choked back tears and her voice faltered as she read the name of Vanessa Reese Smith.

“I think that the turnout was beautiful,” Flowers said. “The (memorial is the) first time we have attempted this on the university side, and I think it was meaningful to see how many colleagues showed up to say that this matters, and the person mattered; more than the event, the person mattered, and we miss them.” 

Augusta resident Ruth Berry plays music on a cello with pieces written by J.S. Bach. (Photo: Shellie Smitley)
Augusta resident Ruth Berry plays music on a cello with pieces written by J.S. Bach. (Photo: Shellie Smitley)

The ceremony ended with the tolling of the bell. A reception was held on the porch of Bellevue Hall afterwards, and refreshments were served.

Wallace said there is a committee that was formed to plan the memorial events. He is the chairman of that committee. The committee chose the teardrop at Summerville campus because of its central location and because it had a natural stage with steps. The teardrop provided birds chirping in the background and what Flowers described as a “comfortable breeze.”

Wallace, who previously was employed at the University of Mississippi, said the idea of placing flowers in a bowl of water to represent the lives of the deceased came from that university’s tradition of using gardenias.

“We looked at a lot of different institutions; most institutions do candlelight,” Wallace said. “As a committee we started talking about candlelight as a fire safety, and if we did it outdoors and its windy, would it blow the candles out? So floral is a way that we could do something significant, something nice, something memorable, without it being candles.”

The decision to hold a yearly memorial celebration was prompted by students’ requests. Wallace said students have approached him and questioned him about why the university does not provide candlelight ceremonies for students who have died. He said university administrators across the country do not typically plan candlelight services and that services like that are generally student driven.

Wallace said he saw a need and he believes it is an opportunity for the university to start a meaningful tradition. He said Keel was receptive of the idea and had good words to say about the ceremony afterwards.

“So we did really did not want to dictate how we do each ceremony for students or even employee deaths, Wallace said. “This is not to supersede those individual ceremonies, but this is a way for us to come together as a university family.

Provost Gretchen Caughman said she agrees with Wallace’s idea that an annual memorial is a good tradition to start. She said Flowers, who presides over the university’s ceremony honoring the lives of donors who have donated remains for the purpose of research, never disappoints her.

Next year we will look at from April 1, 2016, to April 1, 2017, Wallace said. “That will be the cutoff date for when the person is deceased, and give us enough time to get the printed programs completed and get the names in there and invite the families.”

Flowers said, in addition to the memorial ceremony, the university offers grief counseling and support services to the families of students, staff and faculty who have died.

When we know of a loss, we try to respond to (family members) to let them know as soon as possible, to seek, (and that we) offer support,” Flowers said. “We do reach out to the families, and we let them know that there is support and there is help during this journey and more.

Contact Shellie Smitley at sbarb@augusta.edu.

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