Eulogy for the Challenger


Twenty nine years ago, on January 31, 1986, President Reagan delivered the following eulogy to honor the Challenger astronauts.

We come together today to mourn the loss of seven brave Americans, to share the grief that we all feel and, perhaps in that sharing, to find the strength to bear our sorrow and the courage to look for the seeds of hope.

Our nation’s loss is first a profound personal loss to the family and the friends and the loved ones of our shuttle astronauts. To those they have left behind — the mothers, the fathers, the husbands and wives, brothers and sisters… yes, and especially the children — all of America stands beside you in your time of sorrow.

What we say today is only an inadequate expression of what we carry in our hearts. Words pale in the shadow of grief; they seem insufficient even to measure the brave sacrifice of those you loved and we so admired. Their truest testimony will not be in the words we speak, but in the way they led their lives and in the way they lost those lives — with dedication, honor and an unquenchable desire to explore this mysterious and beautiful universe.

The best we can do is remember our seven astronauts — our Challenger Seven — remember them as they lived, bringing life and love and joy to those who knew them and pride to a nation. They came from all parts of this great country — from South Carolina to Washington State; Ohio to Mohawk, New York; Hawaii to North Carolina to Concord, New Hampshire. They were so different, yet in their mission, their quest, they held so much in common.

We remember Dick Scobee, the commander who spoke the last words we heard from the space shuttle Challenger. He served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, earning many medals for bravery; later as a test pilot of advanced aircraft before joining the space program. Danger was a familiar companion to Commander Scobee.

We remember Michael Smith, who earned enough medals as a combat pilot to cover his chest, including the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, in gratitude from a nation he fought to keep free.

We remember Judith Resnik, known as “J.R.” to her friends, always smiling, always eager to make a contribution, finding beauty in the music she played on her piano in her off-hours.

We remember Ellison Onizuka, who, as a child running barefoot through the coffee fields and macadamia groves of Hawaii, dreamed of someday traveling to the Moon. Being an Eagle Scout, he said, had helped him soar to the impressive achievements of his career.

We remember Ronald McNair, who said that he learned perseverance in the cotton fields of South Carolina. His dream was to live aboard the Space Station, performing experiments and playing his saxophone in the weightlessness of space. Well, Ron, we will miss your saxophone and we will build your Space Station.

We remember Gregory Jarvis. On that ill-fated flight he was carrying with him a flag of his university in Buffalo, New York — a small token, he said, to the people who unlocked his future.

We remember Christa McAuliffe, who captured the imagination of the entire nation, inspiring us with her pluck, her restless spirit of discovery; a teacher, not just to her students, but to an entire people, instilling us all with the excitement of this journey we ride into the future.

We will always remember them, these skilled professionals, scientists and adventurers, these artists and teachers and family men and women, and we will cherish each of their stories — stories of triumph and bravery; stories of true American heroes.

On the day of the disaster, our nation held a vigil by our television sets. In one cruel moment, our exhilaration turned to horror. We waited and watched and tried to make sense of what we had seen. That night, I listened to a call-in program on the radio: people of every age spoke of their sadness and the pride they felt in our astronauts. Across America, we are reaching out, holding hands and finding comfort in one another.

The sacrifice of your loved ones has stirred the soul of our nation and, through the pain, our hearts have been opened to a profound truth: the future is not free; the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds. We learned again that this America, which Abraham Lincoln called the last best hope of man on Earth, was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required, and who gave it with little thought of worldly reward.

We think back to the pioneers of an earlier century; the sturdy souls who took their families and the belongings and set out into the frontier of the American West. Often, they met with terrible hardship. Along the Oregon Trail you can still see the gravemarkers of those who fell on the way. But grief only steeled them to the journey ahead.

Today, the frontier is space and the boundaries of human knowledge. Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reservoirs of courage, character and fortitude; that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger.

Dick Scobee knew that every launching of a space shuttle is a technological miracle. And he said if something ever does go wrong, I hope that doesn’t mean the end to the space shuttle program. Every family member I talked to asked specifically that we continue the program; that that is what their departed loved one would want above all else. We will not disappoint them.

Today, we promise Dick Scobee and his crew that their dream lives on; that the future they worked so hard to build will become reality. The dedicated men and women of NASA have lost seven members of their family. Still, they too, must forge ahead with a space program that is effective, safe and efficient, but bold and committed. Man will continue his conquest of space. To reach out for new goals and ever-greater achievements. That is the way we shall commemorate our seven Challenger heroes.

Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, Greg and Christa — your families and your country mourn your passing. We bid you goodbye. We will never forget you. For those who knew you well and loved you, the pain will be deep and enduring. A nation, too, will long feel the loss of her seven sons and daughters, her seven good friends. We can find consolation only in faith, for we know in our hearts that you who flew so high and so proud now make your home beyond the stars, safe in God’s promise of eternal life.

May God bless you all and give you comfort in this difficult time.

Another Angle to Consider: Your Post-death Physical Legacy

Many of us, in this digital world, have given thoughts to how to pass on account numbers, passwords, log-ins, and access to our online and physical documentation.

The website Get your S&*%t Together (among many others) does an amazing good job of getting your estate data ready to be assumed–in one place, you can store all the essentials that would give your loved ones a good start on managing and wrapping up your affairs for you.   So many options exist for documenting your digital and official presence–most people will get it done to one degree or another, or at least know they need to do so.

But what of the more esoteric, not necessarily legal things which will be left to your loved ones to deal with?  My Wonderful Life includes a section on pet care, letting you indicate who the vets and providers your pet knows are, and who you would think should be considered as foster care for orphaned pets.   Facebook gives you the option to convert a profile into a memorial page, so there’s that.  Have you ever thought down to as far as how to keep the pool pump running, and what the septic system needs, or which hollow in the staircase stores the family heirloom jewelry?

In this article, the author describes the journey of working through and figuring out the peculiarities of her father’s house, courtesy of his lifelong passion as a tinkerer and computer nerd.  Discovering, documenting, and eventually dismantling the custom wiring and controls installed with no records, tracking down how to stop the automatic light programming, trying to silence an alarm system no one knew about–all these things, part of her father’s legacy, left to chance for her (or a subsequent buyer) to sort out.

While not as immediate or possibly costly as your funeral/final wishes planning, your physical-space legacy is no less important. If it’s unique knowledge, or a system of your own design, wouldn’t it be the kind thing to do to document it while you still can?   

PS to my father:  This includes things like, I dunno, THE STAMP COLLECTION.   Document that thing right now, doggone it!!   

Austin Natural Caskets

Recently, while reading up on Austin options for green burial, I ran into Austin Natural Caskets.   The beauty and simplicity of these caskets takes my breath away, and almost–almost–makes me want to consider a casket burial!

These gorgeous caskets are truly handmade works of art.  They’re specifically constructed with an eye toward green burial–all natural fibers and no metal parts are used, allowing the casket to degrade naturally with the body, so burial at Eloise Woods or any of the other local green burial sites wouldn’t be a problem.


So often in my work talking through funeral wishes with folks, I hear the old country-western song ideal, “Just put me in a pine box and bury me…”    Well, Austin Natural Caskets seems to have that covered:


Simple.  Pine.  Plain.    Doug Stone would approve!

I’m hoping to get out to meet Mr. Richardson and get a firsthand look at his work, but for the moment, I’m just glad to see a local artisan facilitating the needs of the Austin green burial movement in such a beautiful way.

If you want to know more, including pricing and delivery options, check out Austin Natural Caskets.

The Heresy of Funeral Price Shopping

I ran into a friend the other day at Costco.   We caught up for a bit, and soon enough I was telling her about this advocacy voice inside me, about the passion I have for helping people through the process of planning for and working through final arrangements.

She, like so so many others, had her story to tell–most everyone does.  Hers began, as many do, with, “Oh, I really needed someone like you last summer!”.

Sadly, her mother had recently passed away–young and unexpectedly–so no planning or forethought had been done.  My friend was left to make the arrangements from scratch.  She told me of the pain of having to start thinking through decisions while the shock of her mom’s death was still fresh, how it was disorienting but still something she needed to do and did.

Curiously, she then followed up with an apology of sorts, a sheepish admission–”I felt so guilty calling around to the funeral homes, getting prices.  I had a little chart that I wrote down prices and details on….”

As if asking prices for a funeral  purchase was shameful.   As if she should be embarrassed for even wanting to know, not wanting to waste money or to spend more than she needed to, as she made the decisions.  It just somehow feels wrong, disrespectful, to be concerned with costs when it’s death, right?  At the end of life, shouldn’t all that matters be expressing how much you loved the person?

But my friend’s right to be concerned.  Funeral costs can vary tremendously from funeral home to funeral home, even in the same town.  Picking a location blindly could be a $3000 error, for the same services, for the same exact event.   Wouldn’t you research cars before you bought one, especially if it could mean thousands of dollars difference to your wallet?  Don’t you look up hotels before you book them?

Why shouldn’t funerals be the same?   Why are we shy or ashamed to talk about prices, to shop around for end-of-life arrangements?

It’s time to open up the funeral and end of life discussion in our families.  It’s ALWAYS time to do so.  There’s no other event on earth that is guaranteed to happen to every single one of us–we all need to have thought this through.

Talk about what you want now, openly.  If you need help, contact an advocate (like me) for ideas, or look online or at your local booksellers for any number of planning books.   Go tour a funeral home or two close by, just to get the feel of the business (you don’t have to preplan there, just meet the staff and see what it’s like).  Get the pricing lists from some funeral homes and talk it through with your family–are there things on there that you would hate to spend money on?   Do you have other ideas about your end-of-life–say body donation or home funeral?

Now is the time.  Now is the time to talk it all through.  NOW.

Death Cafe–wanna talk about dying?

Last night, I was privileged to share a few hours with an intimate group at Death Cafe Austin.  This group, run by Brooks Kasson and Jo Jensen, allows a safe space to discuss issues around death and dying–the agenda is user-driven, so it’s never the same meeting (or even same hour) twice.

You can read more about the Death Cafe movement here.   Death awareness, whether through Death Cafe or Death over Dinner, or any growing number of articles and outreach groups, is gaining speed!   If you’re curious or want to know more, hit the Death Cafe link above, or check out Twitter and find your own local group.

If you’re passionate about death and dying, or even just curious about what it feels like to plan two hours in a room with strangers talking about the most intimate of experiences–death and dying– plan to come out to the next Death Cafe Austin.   This meeting will be on Wednesday, February 4th at 6:30, at Cafe Express (3416 N. Lamar).

Welcome to Marilee’s Preplanning Musings!

I’m glad you found me here–I hope you’ll come again.

I grew up in a society that didn’t have a lot of death.  It was a true company town, in the Canal Zone.  You really only lived there when you worked for the company, and then they returned you to your previous location–we had few retired folks around, and fewer still dying of old age.    Living overseas, we also were largely spared from the ‘travel all night/fly on a moment’s notice’ for dying relatives as well–it was just too far, too expensive, and too much time to return to your States home for deaths.

As a result, I grew up having never been to a funeral or experienced a death around me, until a close friend’s father died our senior year of high school.    By that time, I was old enough to not be scared or upset by the process, but rather was absolutely fascinated by the whole affair and wanted to know more–and thus began the process of learning and inquiry that brings us to this page.

I was teaching school in an impoverished area, with nearly 100% free-lunch participation when the industry next struck my awareness.  Tragically, in the time I was there, two separate families suffered the loss of a child.  As I watched the death-care industry process play out, I noticed how these families (who I knew didn’t have a whole lot of money) somehow opted for every single add-on and expenditure possible for their kids’ funerals, from special visitor cards to flashy caskets, long black cars in a procession, extended visiting hours, flowers from here to there, and the like.  I questioned teachers who had more time at the school than I did, and found out that that was typically the way it was done in that community–that the family would go into debt, and would receive help from family and friends, to provide a fully-featured uber-expensive funeral for their loved one.   It stymied me that folks living so close to (or truly in) poverty would choose the way they did, with the financial ramifications, in that moment.

While part of those choices made may have been cultural, I’ve come to understand that there’s just not a lot of awareness out there about choices in deathcare, and that a great many people across all cultures and social strata procrastinate thinking about deathcare and funeral choices until it’s forced on them, which is absurd–if there’s one guarantee in life, it’s that most all us will one day have the body of a loved one on our hands, and will have to make choices about how to honor the life and the death of that person through body disposition.   The fact that really has brought me to this calling is simply this:  you make better choices in general when you are prepared with information and forethought–and deathcare decisions are included in that.

Which brings us to this blog, and my work’s mission.  Within this blog, I hope you’ll find thought-provoking articles, cautionary tales, gentle (or more forceful) nudges to action, and openings to philosophical discussions–all things designed to raise your level of comfort and awareness with the discussion, and compel you to begin your own preplanning.  Check back weekly for more thoughts or add me to your RSS feed;  like me on Facebook ( and Twitter (@MarileeSParsons) for the complete package.

PREPLANNING MATTERS.  For everyone–no, not true, really just for anyone who will die.  Preplanning is easy to do, and usually is a one-time effort–so suck it up and get to it!    Remember, preplanning isn’t complete until you’ve both shared and funded your wishes–so pass this blog(and my companion planning service site, along to your family, and open the conversations with them.   Do it yourself, do it with your family, pay me to help you, go to a funeral home of your choice–but just GET IT DONE.!