Memorial Service for Miss Lillian Asplund

Worcester, Massachusetts is a city of approximately 180,00 living souls, located in what the state likes to call the “Heart of the Commonwealth. It is, like Rome, a city of seven hills and the second largest city in the state after nearby Boston.  In 1684 the former Quinsigamond Plantation,  was renamed Worcester, possibly for Worcester, England, as an angry gesture at King Charles II of England, who had suffered defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.  Worcester would become a thriving hub for education, culture, transportation and industrial innovation, including new methods of making wire, (which enticed Carl Asplund to bring his family back from Sweden), textiles, grinding wheels, and envelopes. 
 
In the twentieth century the city would count among its famous natives rocketry pioneer Robert H. Goddard, a professor at Clark University, and one courageous Worcester-born woman of Swedish descent who survived a pivotal event of the short, golden era called Edwardian, aboard a ship which was thought to be unsinkable.  Until Sunday morning, May 7, 2006, most of the inhabitants of the city of Worcester had most likely not given Lillian Gertrud Asplund much thought, if they had known of her at all.  By eventide of Wednesday, May 10, 2006, not many in her native city had not heard her name and learned that she was the last American survivor of the Titanic, and the last living link whose eyes rested upon, and recorded the unfolding of the most famous peacetime disaster at sea.
 
Wednesday dawned grey and chilling, following hard upon the driving wind and rain of Tuesday night.  Early morning papers had suggested that the day set aside to lay the mortal remains of  Lillian Asplund to rest at last in the soil of the Old Swedish Cemetery with her parents and brother would be a media event and “standing room only”.  For the woman who had for nearly a century maintained a full, productive but private life, and who had provided the comfort of a widowed mother and solace of a beloved brother, this seemed somehow an incongruous ending.
 
The service at the Nordgren Memorial Chapel situated on Lincoln Street, nestled  amongst prim Victorian houses was to commence at 2 p.m.  By 1:15 a slow but steady parade of automobiles entered the rain-drenched lot.  Several reporters stood a respectful distance on the sidewalk and watched as a line formed at the front entrance.  Two police cruisers stood at the ready; tall somber men in uniform prepared for anything which might happen to mar the dignity of the day. For a time the drizzle ceased as people waiting outside began to turn to their neighbor in line and ask about Miss Lillian.  Two ladies who had worked with her at the insurance company many years ago smiled brightly at a young reporter and told of Miss Asplund’s energy and zest for life, but also of her private, reserved nature and most endearingly of her love for her garden.  Over thirty years had passed since Lillian’s retirement and many of the heads nodding and remembering in the damp afternoon breeze were silver-haired.
 
Upon entering the foyer the first view was of a large painting of Christ at Emmaus, newly resurrected and so transfigured that his own disciples knew him not until they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.  There was a quiet, slow- moving pace through the line into the chapel, pausing to sign the register of guests.  One lady explained she was a great-niece of Miss Asplund, a grandchild of a sister of Selma Asplund’s. A small memorial card was personally given to each person that bore a lithographed image of a calm sea over which shone a golden cross with the reverse giving the life span of Miss Asplund. The card is very like a 1912 postcard by the Bamford Company, published after the Titanic’s sinking which depicts the ocean at night with a gleaming cross high in a dark sky over the waves.
 
In the soft glow of two rose-tinted torchieres reposed the pale ivory casket on its bier with a back drop drapery of eau de nile green silk; two tall and slender bleached beeswax tapers tipped with shining brass wax followers stood sentry on each side.  Clusters of dusty mauve rosebuds were painted on the silvery handles of the casket, in mute tribute to Miss Lillian’s favorite flower.  A graceful cascade of miniature pink roses, monte casino, pink snapdragons and miniature carnations with maidenhair fern adorned the top of the casket while floral sprays of spring flowers, one of pale apricot-coloured roses, another of pink roses,  a stately vase of white gerbera and white snapdragons with ribbons the blue shade of Sweden’s national flag, and a pulpit spray of deep red roses, emerald fern, white Fuji chrysanthemums, white snapdragons and daisies flanked the sides.  A double prie-dieu with deep rose velvet kneelers stood before the catafalque, and a large honey-coloured wooden cross bearing a silver crucifix centered above the casket.
 
Mr. Maloof and Alden Carlson, Miss Asplund’s attorney and cousin, sat near the back of the main parlour; Mr. Maloof  being the genial and gracious presence who greeted and made all feel comfortable and welcome.  Miss Esther, Lillian Asplund’s longtime Kenyan nurse-companion sat in the front row place reserved for close family.  She was dressed all in black, her thin shoulders trembling with emotion, . Miss Esther had spent many hours tenderly caring for the bedridden Miss Asplund, and the tears coursing down her cheeks throughout the simple service told of her great devotion to her old friend and charge. She had come an hour earlier, helped gently by friends, supporting her into the chapel to spend last precious moments alone with Miss Lillian.
 
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Newhall, vested in an academic preaching gown of dull ensign blue banded with black velvet doctoral sleeve chevrons, stepped to the lectern promptly at 2 o’ clock, bringing the low hum of conversation among the sixty-two seated people to a hush.  A side parlour had been opened to accommodate fifteen latecomers.  After a warm greeting , Dr. Newhall began in a tone of comfort and authority bespeaking many years’ experience in the pulpit. It was clear that Miss Asplund’s life was understood and well-known to him. After reciting the King James Version of the Twenty-Third Psalm- “her version of the Bible”, there were scripture readings from Isaiah, John 14 and Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer and a well-loved poem by John Greenleaf Whittier called “The Eternal Goodness”.  The thought which was forming in many minds as he spoke of the courage of Miss Asplund through life’s many challenges , was this:  would there be a mention of the Titanic and its effect upon her life?  Perhaps Miss Lillian would not have wanted it, but nonetheless, the course of her life was so formed by the event, that to leave it out would have been incomplete, and so the minister began with the metaphor of life as a sort of journey into the unknown, from launching forth with hope at the beginning through the trials and tribulations on stormy seas, then coming  at last into safe harbor at journey’s end. “It was good she was born Swedish- stubborn and strong- these things she would need,” he said.
 
Dr. Newhall then cited a series of paintings by Thomas Cole, born in Lancashire ,England in 1801, immigrating to America at age seventeen and becoming America’s foremost landscape painter in a league with England’s own Constable.  Cole painted a series of four canvases  called “The Voyages of Life”in 1842 depicting the stages of a human life from childhood through very old age . The first stage shows a beautiful angel clothed in white  floating on calm waters in a golden boat, the human figure, dressed in red,  grows older through two more canvases in the series, as the little boat goes through various scenes of peace and light, darkness and storm, watched over by the angel from above.  The final canvas is of an elderly figure seated in the boat, beams of light streaming down from heaven, with a dove gliding into the sunlight; the angel with hand poised to take the bent and weary soul homeward.  Within the imagery of these paintings  the elderly pastor wove the story of another small figure in a boat on the great Atlantic on a night of ice, despair and tragedy.  Every soul in the room sat in silence, hearing these words, eyes drifting towards the place where lay the now-silent, small figure of an indomitable woman- a woman behind whose closed eyes now rested the last vision of Titanic.
 
After reciting the well-known words of absolution of any sin committed during the lifetime, there came the commendation of the spirit to God, and prayers for the repose of the soul.
In closing, Dr. Newhall brought to mind the  concept of a little boat going over the horizon; tearful friends waving goodbye forever on the shore and crying “She is gone.” Weep not for her, those who are left behind, –  for on another shore just over the horizon waits a cheering throng crying for joy, “She has arrived!”
 
As the old familiar melody of Abide With Me was played, every person in the room came forward one at a time to kneel, offer a last prayer and say farewell.  Most turned away with moist eyes.  For those who knew her well, for those who knew her somewhat, and for those who knew her not at all, she somehow belonged to the world, and was one of us who would be so dearly missed.
 
Out into the rain went the mourners, down the steps into the grinding whirl of a battery of news cameras positioned at a level to catch the faces of those coming down the stairs. As the queue of vehicles assembled behind the long silver hearse, one newsman and his cameraman thrust camera and microphones into the open windows of the mourners’ automobiles which were waiting to make up the procession to the cemetery.  It was, perhaps the ugliest note of the day.
The long procession snaked through the back streets of Worcester in the light drizzle, the leaden skies filled with dark clouds. Past the hallowed halls of the College of the Holy Cross and onward to Hope Avenue at a stately pace went the cortege, through the city of Miss Lillian’s birth 99 years ago.  The avenue  leads to the place of repose for all of Worcester. Hope Cemetery, All Faiths and Notre Dame all are situated together on both sides of the quiet street overlooking the seven hills from their high perch over the city. Turning onto Webster, then Island Road, the green canvas marquee could be seen covering the grave site.  Television and newspaper crews kept a distance during the final committal rites.  Only the flash of a camera and the maneuverings of one young man to obtain good angles broke the solemnity.  Dr. Newhall began by saying, “This will be brief as Miss Lillian would not wish you to be cold”.  Once again the Twenty-Third Psalm and The Lord’s Prayer were said by all. As he pronounced the timeworn words of the consecration of the earth, he blessed the ground with a pink rose in his hand.  “Daughter of Sweden, child of God, and New England Yankee too” he said, which brought a smile to all who know what the last truly means.  All were invited to take a flower as “loving her garden, she would want you to”.  Some stayed to photograph the stone and casket, a few held interviews nearby while others looked for comfort among friends.  One by one the throng dispersed, back into daily lives, which for a brief time were suspended to mark the passing of a grand lady. 
Some hours later, as the evening closed in, the only sign of all which had gone before on that afternoon were the tread marks of the great machine which had closed the rich soil over the little family reunited once more, and for all eternity.  A catbird called its evening song in a nearby tree as the fragrance of crushed rose petals perfumed the air.
 
Stanzas From John Greenleaf Whittier’s  “The Eternal Goodness”
 
(December 17, 1807September 7, 1892) was an American Quaker poet and advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Highly regarded in his lifetime and for a period thereafter (several New England states had holidays in his honor), he is now largely forgotten except for a number of poems turned into hymns, some of which remain exceedingly popular. Although clearly Victorian in style, and capable of being sentimental, his hymns exhibit both imagination and universalism of spirit that set them beyond ordinary 19th century hymnody.(Wikipedia)
 
I long for household voices gone,
For vanished smiles I long,
But God hath led my dear ones on,
And He can do no wrong.
 
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
 
And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed He will not break,
But strengthen and sustain.
 
No offering of my own I have,
Nor works my faith to prove;
I can but give the gifts He gave,
And plead His love for love.
 
And so beside the Silent Sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
 
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care
 
Readings: Psalm 23 King James Version
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
 
John 14
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Fathers house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.
Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.
Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?
Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.
Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works sake.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.
I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.
Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.
 
Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 8 (excerpt)
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  © Shelley Dziedzic 2006
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1 thought on “Memorial Service for Miss Lillian Asplund”

  1. Virginia Patton said:

    I have to tell you that I cried all the way through this! Wonderfully done.

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