Mortality and life’s afterglow

Mary Lee Hagert

Joan Hagert

A death in the family and the feeling of grief that comes with it always bring one’s own mortality into focus, even though we try to blur it as we go about living.

But there was no way to escape thoughts of death as I walked into Maternity of Mary Church in St. Paul last week and picked up a funeral program for my 83-year-old aunt, Joan Theyoan (Delaney) Hagert, and looked at a tinted photograph of her lovely, youthful face on the cover. 

Sunlight spilled into the sanctuary, creating a golden glow that early June morning as the soloist sang a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria,” a family funeral tradition. Tears clouded my vision as the hymn resurrected so many memories of deceased loved ones and connections with the past. 

After all, death is that final oblivion we all face, and moves ever closer with the passing of each aunt, uncle and parent. As much as we want it to be otherwise, there’s simply no avoiding that fact.

Watching my cousins sit solemnly in the pews, it hit me they were now much older than their mother was when that portrait photo was taken. I also was struck by the realization that they were now “adult orphans” — their father, Gerald (Jerry), died in 2009. 

My dad likes to say that Joan was “the glue that held her family together,” and her death leaves a hole, especially in the hearts of her four sons, three daughters and their spouses and children. But even after she took her final breath, she had an incredible gift for them. 

She had pre-planned her entire funeral — from the outfit she wore in her casket to the hymns and Bible passages included in the ceremony. In their grief, my cousins didn’t have to wonder, “What now?” or “What would Mom want?” because she had taken care of it all.


50 years

That was typical of Aunt Joan, whose house was always in order, even when my family dropped by unannounced on summer afternoons more than a half century ago. How had so much time passed?

But I had attended Jerry and Joan’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 2003, so I knew that passage of time was real. At the party, Joan was all smiles as she posed for photographs and circulated among the many guests. 

I once asked her about the origins of her unusual middle name, and she rolled her eyes and laughed as she explained, “I have no idea how my mother came up with Theyoan. I’m sure I was the only girl in Iowa with that name.”

Just days after my aunt’s funeral, the country marked the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination while he was campaigning for the presidency.

Though much of the nation’s attention turned to memories of the turbulent 1960s, my reflections also included a childhood spent in a quiet small town, of lazy afternoons playing games with my cousins, and of listening to the comfortable rhythm of my mother and Aunt Joan’s conversations around the kitchen table.

Just as RFK is forever that handsome 42-year-old man, in my mind’s eye, Joan is still that fetching young woman with an infectious smile and dark brown hair in the photograph.

In a tip of her hat to her Celtic heritage, her funeral prayer card had the traditional Irish Blessing. The card also included this poem by the late American poet Helen Lowrie Marshall.




I’d like the memory of me 

To be a happy one.

I’d like to leave an afterglow 

Of smiles when day is done.

I’d like to leave an echo 

Whispering softly down the ways,

Of happy times and laughing times 

And bright and sunny days.

I’d like the tears of those who grieve, 

To dry before the sun

Of happy memories I leave 

Behind — when day is done. 


It was the perfect choice of verse for my aunt. While death may have moved one step closer, a happy afterglow remains in its wake. 

Farewell, Joan Theyoan ...


– Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at

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