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One of the public aspects of a death is the opportunity for the surviving spouse or family to request memorial gifts to a charity: “In lieu of flowers, friends may make a donation to…”

This is very familiar practice—and yet it’s a very striking one, far outside most of our social norms around gifts and philanthropy. We need only turn to that eminent arbiter of manners, Miss Manners, to note the difference.

Miss Manners explains that it is considered gauche for a family member to host bridal or baby showers, it being, as Miss Manners puts it, “cheeky to ask for presents for your relatives.”  

And, it’s considered gauche to ask for a charitable gift as part of a social occasion. So, although it is, regrettably common nowadays for brides and grooms to request guests give a contribution to the bridal couple’s favorite charity instead of wedding gifts, Miss Manners still views this as a charitable solicitation that properly has nothing to do with a wedding.

On the other hand, Miss Manners views a statement of where memorial gifts may be sent as wholly in order—her only stipulation being, of course, that memorial gifts, like all others, should be promptly acknowledged with a letter of thanks.

So, what makes memorial gifts different?

Of course, it’s certainly true that memorial gifts aren’t exactly analogous to shower gifts—they’re certainly not going to be used by the person so honored in a way the bride and groom may use a toaster. And a death is not a social occasion in the way a wedding is, although it is a public event and may be followed by a community event such as a funeral or memorial.

I’ve had a chance to think about what makes memorial gifts special in the last two years, during which both of my parents have died. It was surprising to me how very much I appreciated the donations people made on behalf of each of my parents.

I especially appreciated the gifts that people made to charities other than the ones my brother and I suggested but determined instead by what the donor and my mother or father shared in common. One close friend, having hiked many miles in the Canadian Rockies with my father, sponsored a little stretch span of the Trans Canada Trail. Another friend, knowing that my father canvassed annually for the Kidney Foundation Canada, chose to make her gift there.

Memorial gifts are affirmations of the life and work of the person who has died—a sort of “amen” to his or her life.

That’s why, whenever I have occasion to make a memorial gift, I prefer to give to an organization connected with the person’s life or work, rather than to a hospice or an organization that fights a disease from which he died (much as I admire the work of hospices, cancer research centers, and the like!). It seems to me better to affirm the person’s life rather than wishing it were possible to ward off his death.

Any philanthropy is not only an expression of generosity but also, properly, an expression of gratitude—gratitude for abundance. And a life is a sort of existential abundance worthy of wonder. And, at a life’s end, gratitude for that life expressed through a memorial gift seems wholly fitting. No wonder Miss Manners approves.

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