Celebration of the Life of Mitchell Bourke: March 26, 2010

This remembrance of Unitarian Church member Mitchell Bourke, 8 February 1923 - 23 March 2010, was delivered by Rev. Diane Rollert

Our opening words come from a poem by Howard Thurman 

I share with you the agony of your grief,
The anguish of your heart finds echo in my own.
I know I cannot enter all you feel
Nor bear with you the burden of your pain;
I can but offer what my love does give:
the strength of caring,
The warmth of one who seeks to understand
the silent storm-swept barrenness of so great a loss.
This I do in quiet ways,
That on your lonely path
You may not walk alone.

We gather this morning to say goodbye, to mourn the loss and to celebrate the life of George Mitchell Bourke, a man we knew as Mitch or Mitchell. Nothing ever prepares us for the loss of a loved one.  We are caught off guard, seeking closure as best we can. Mitchell’s health was failing for many years, and although he had reached the age of 87, he had every intention of living much longer.

So let us take this time to remember a man who knew love in his final days and yearned to experience more.  Let us open a space where we can gather the memories through song, music, poetry and silence. Let this early spring morning be witness to the memories of those who knew Mitchell the longest and to the memories of those who knew him only as he was just a few days ago.

We light two flames today.  The first is the flame of our chalice, our flame of community.  Although Mitchell was not able to be physically present here for many years, he always saw this church as his home.  
I invite two of Mitchell’s grandchildren, Emory and Ariella to come forward to light our chalice.
In our time of grief, we light this flame of sharing as a symbol of ongoing life.  May its light burn brightly as a beacon of understanding and serenity in the face of loss.

Our second flame is a candle of remembrance to evoke the spirit of Mitchell’s life.  I invite his youngest grandchild Olivia to come forward to light the candle.

Readings – Steven and Michael
Remembrance – Rev. Diane Rollert

These words come from an untitled poem by Stephen Spender

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass,
And by the streamers of white cloud,
And whispers of wind in the listening sky;
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor

Born and raised in Montreal, Mitchell was a very young man when he went off to the Royal Military College to prepare to become an officer.  He then served with distinction as a captain of a mobile artillery unit during World War II.  He came home a hero.

Yet he had landed in Normandy, and like many of his fellow soldiers, he left much unspoken when he came.  We can never know what hardened him and prepared him to survive a war.  When I asked him what those days were like, he would only say that they were the best days of his life.  “It was the greatest time,” he said.  “It was so exciting.  It was hard to go home and settle down.”

When he returned from the war and arrived at McGill University to complete his studies in engineering, he was handsome and physically fit.  It wasn’t hard for him to sweep his first wife Barbara off her feet.  Together they raised three children, Steven, Michael and Julia.  Throughout those years he was focused on his work.  He went to work at Sun Life while his father was president there.  But then he chose to take a different track, one that was surprisingly ahead of his time.  Rare for a born and bred anglophone Montrealer, he decided that the future lay in making connections with the francophone community. 

He took French lessons and he joined the bilingual firm of Bolton Tremblay in 1962.  Later in his life, he would marry a Québecoise.  When I first met Mitchell, he encouraged me to keep up my studies in French.  It was very important to him to be able to live comfortably in both languages.

In 1967 Mitchell became president of Bolton Tremblay, and later its director and chairman. He had a passion for his work as an investment advisor.  It was a passion he never lost, as he would proudly remind me how he had worked on the church’s finances long before my time.  Up to the last weeks of his life he was still keeping track of world events and how they might effect world markets.

Mitchell took great pride in his membership in the Unitarian Church. He joined in 1963.  It may have shocked some members of his family, much to his satisfaction.  He was delighted that our wardens had recently nominated him for lifetime membership as his health had failed and he was no longer able to be an active participant in the life of the church.  It was a recognition that would have been observed early this May.

His daughter Julia writes:

“He taught us integrity, the value of hard work.  He was a non-conformist.
“Mitch had a soldier’s sense of discipline and strictness, but he also had a fierce passion for life, and heartily enjoyed its little pleasures – a gourmet meal, a sunny day, a good cigarette.  He had a sharp mind and a quick dry wit.

“Old age softened him and opened him to the joys of family – he reluctantly allowed himself to be cared for, was always grateful and polite, through sometimes stern and stubborn too!

“He had a rich inner life.  He was a philosopher, a poet, walking the craggy cliffs of his mind in the howling wind by a roaring surf.  

“He loved lake Manitou,” Julia writes.  Here is her fondest memory: 

“7 pm. on a typical summer’s Friday evening in my youth, we arrive at Manitou, after having stopped for take-out at “Pizza Tommitza” (Dad’s nickname for Piazza Tomasso on Decarie) and having braved the weekend traffic.  Dad tears off his clothes in the living room, runs a bee-line down the 79 steps and off the dock into the water in a perfect racing dive.  He takes a long time to come up, going way out and emerges high like a dolphin, yelling “joy!”

“Part of Dad’s humour was his fondness for nicknames: Emory became Amherst, then Lancaster, his very kind driver Mr. Walid, who took him to dialysis three times a week, became Bob, and my dear partner Peter became Jack.  It always got a laugh, but it was also code for expressing appreciation.  Perhaps too, in his last days, it was a defiant stab at the fear of failing memory. He never complained.”  

In recent times Mitchell enjoyed having his son Steven read to him from the Guns of Normandy.  He appreciated the reality of an account of the war and battles he knew so well.  He never forgot the twist of fate that saved his life while so many others he knew had died.  

Not but three weeks ago, he showed me pictures of his grandchildren and told me how important they were to him.  He told me how much he loved his children, Julia, Steven and Michael. He longed to live longer to love them longer.  “I’ve quit smoking and I plan to live to be one hundred,” he told me.

There was still much more that he had planned to do.   

Here are last words from Julia:

The day you died, Dad,
The snow came at last.
Winter declared itself in the moaning wind, protesting the small passage between the inside and outside panes of the window in the bare room you have called home for a while.

Born of the sun he traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with his honour.

Musical Response – Danny Boy

I invite you into a time of meditation, quiet reflection or prayer.  May you call upon that source which brings you comfort and strength in this time of grief.

To let go is never easy.
There is always much that is left unsaid and undone.
We hold in our hearts all who grieve Mitchell’s loss.
Where there lingers any regret or misunderstanding,
we ask for the healing of forgiveness;
Where there has been warmth and love,
we evoke the healing power of gratitude.
We give thanks for a soldier’s service
and the softening of time.
We give thanks for a father and a grandfather
who found joy in his family, especially in his later years of life.
We give thanks for the subtle gestures,
the words of forgiveness,
and the words of love.
We give thanks for all those who made his passage gentle
and who cared for him in days of failing health.
We give thanks for the spirit and connections
that will continue on as his legacy.


Let us enter into a time of silence, followed by a musical response.

Musical Response  Theme from Rosamunde, Schubert

Mitchell was an optimist and he did not rage.  Yet, he lived with a fiery passion for life.  And so it seems fitting to end with these words from Dylan Thomas.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying now bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height.
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

      —Dylan Thomas