Tyler Hempel • Derry Member

When I was a child, every Christmas Eve was spent at Grandma Esther’s house. For that matter, so was every Thanksgiving, Easter, and many other evenings throughout the year. Grandmother Esther was the matriarch of the Hempel family. She grew up on the family farm in the wake of the Great Depression and, like many others, her family often struggled to make ends meet during her youth. Thus, a party at Grandma’s was never a showy or extravagant affair, but instead it was centered around family, community, and God. Grandma would spend all day in the kitchen preparing a simple feast made with love, while we played in the yard or watched the football game. In the evening, we would gather around the big table where she would lead us in prayer, and we’d go around the room sharing what we were grateful for. Then, we would dig into the delicious food and catch up on the family news. The night would end with everyone singing songs and playing games in the living room. These evenings were where some of my fondest childhood memories were made. Grandma Esther continued to host events well into her 80s, until her dementia forced her to pass the torch on to my parents. Little did I know that my grandmother had been planning one more family get together…

Like many other people who make it into their 90s, my grandmother attended numerous funerals over the years. Unlike most, though, she would keep the program from every one of those celebrations of life, scrawling notes on the edges that would later be used as inspiration for her own funeral service. Over time, she compiled a list of passages she wanted to be read and songs she wanted played, and created a general outline of her ideal service. 

When she passed late last year from advanced Alzheimer’s at the age of 94, her five children got together and reviewed her notes to finalize plans. They also used the stories she’d written about her life to put together a video that highlighted what an amazing person she was. Eliana, the twins and I were able to go to Chicago to attend that service last week. The church was filled with children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, cousins, church family, and friends from all over the country. Though our family is large, busy, and spread out, there was no question of missing this chance to celebrate Grandma. I was honored to fulfill one of her wishes and opened the service by playing “On Eagle’s Wings,” one Grandma’s favorite hymns.  Each one of her children read some of her favorite passages from the Bible, and the pastor shared some stories which reminded us how special Grandma was. It was the perfect service. 

Later that evening, the entire family congregated at my parent’s home. After sharing a meal, the adults sat around catching up with one another while the kids played Survive, a favorite board game in our house. We ended the evening gathered around the piano in my parents’ living room singing everything from Piano Man to Amazing Grace loudly, and sometimes a little off key. Somehow, Grandma got us all together doing exactly what she loved, one last time.  

If you are interested in learning more about Grandma Esther, click here to watch the video about her life.