Several years ago my pastor asked me if I would like to start learning how to officiate funerals. He knew I loved to write and even more than that, how much I loved people and telling their stories. At first I thought, “No, never. I could never step into end-of-life grief like this. It would be too hard. I have no idea what I’m doing. What good could I do?”
But the more we talked about it, the more I realized that funerals are simply the active, oral version of what I do with my clients at Memory Lane Jane—write, curate and preserve their life stories into an heirloom book that perfectly (hopefully!) depicts who they are from cover to cover. A “good” funeral—in particular, a good eulogy—captures the very essence of a person from start to finish, just like a good life story. The funeral is essentially the closing chapter, the end of that story.
I have had the honor of officiating or co-officiating close to a dozen funerals—some close friends, some strangers. Every time I’m called upon, I have the privilege of spending a few hours with the family gathering stories and sharing memories. Sometimes we meet at the funeral home, other times around the dinner table over a meal. It is the most sacred, sweet time together—reminiscing, laughing, crying, reflecting. Then it’s writing time; time to creatively weave the stories together into a beautiful eulogy and message of hope. Nothing brings me greater joy than to hear family and friends at a funeral say, “This service just felt so much like her” or “He would have loved it” or “The eulogy described him perfectly.”
On February 3, one of my dear friends unexpectedly passed away. I was (am) devastated and heartbroken. We had been doing life—raising kids, taking vacations, growing up together—with Chris and his family for the last decade. We never saw this coming. I wasn’t sure I could help take the lead with his funeral—emotionally I was a wreck. But my husband Michael and I decided to partner together; he’d write the message and I’d write the eulogy. I didn’t know how it would go, if I could handle it.
Much to my surprise, I could.
In Louise DeSalvo’s book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, she says “writing is a very sturdy ladder out of the pit.” As I began to write Chris’ eulogy, I experienced this. I’d write and then I’d pause to cry, to remember my friend—his goofy laugh, his dumb jokes, his big toothy smile. And then I’d write some more. And the more I wrote, the higher I climbed out of the pit of my sadness, my anger, my loss. Writing his eulogy was the start of my healing journey.
I’m honored to share it with you here.
Christopher Johan VanderTol
January 28, 1977 – February 3, 2018
It was a perfect day for a family outing to the Festival of the Arts in downtown Grand Rapids. Johan and Sandy decided to take their sons—Chris, 4 years old at the time, and his younger brother Matthew, to explore all of the art, the food and the fun the town had to offer. After walking around for awhile, the kids started to get hungry—Chris was always hungry—so they found a booth selling cookies. Now, if you know Chris, this would have been a “we’ve hit the jackpot moment.” Chris loved cookies and brownies and cakes and pies…any baked goods, anything with sugar, really. The family sat down at a picnic table and Sandy handed her very eager Chris a cookie to enjoy all for himself. Jackpot! But before he could take a bite, a little girl came and took a seat next to him on the bench. She didn’t have a cookie. Chris looked at her, looked at his cookie and without a second thought, broke it in half and handed his new friend a giant piece of his cookie. Even from a young age, Chris loved sacrificially—friends, he gave away his cookie—he loved others with a self-sacrificing, inviting, inclusive, passionate love.
Christopher Johan VanderTol was born on January 28, 1977 in the middle of a raging West Michigan blizzard. His parents barely made it to the hospital before Chris made his grand entrance into the world weighing 7 pounds, 3 ounces and measuring 21 inches long. That same year—1977—Apple sold their very first computer, Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th president of the United States, The first Star Wars film, Episode IV—A New Hope—premiered around the world, Atari released the first home video game console in North America, and much to Chris’ musical delight—The Clash debuted their first album “The Clash” marking the beginning of the punk rock music era.
Chris was the happiest baby. He smiled and laughed and never got into anything, making Sandy the happiest mother! When Chris’ younger brother Matthew was born 21 months later, Sandy was exhausted from the sleepless nights and Chris would whisper quietly to baby Matthew while his mom dozed off on the couch. She never had to worry about Chris getting into trouble. He would sit and play by himself for hours. He really was a dream! While Chris, even as a toddler, was very independent and self sufficient, early on he recognized his need for Jesus.
As a young boy he used to listen to records that shared the story of salvation on his little turntable. One morning when his mom was in the kitchen making him some oatmeal for breakfast, Chris shouted, “Mom, how does Jesus come into your heart?” She answered, “Well, you just invite him in.” A moment of silence passed and suddenly she hears Chris, “Dear Jesus, please come into my heart…Now he’s in, mom!” Faith in God came that easy to Chris throughout his whole life. He never wavered, it was just a given; his faith was unshakeable. Shortly after, Chris wanted to be baptized, so he joined with his brother and some others from his church—Resurrection Life —and was baptized in his backyard pool.
Chris loved school. He attended his first year of preschool at Seymour Christian School and enjoyed every minute of it. But after an enrollment snafu the following year, his class was full and he wasn’t on the list. Chris told his mom he didn’t need a chair, he would be fine to go to class and just stand against the wall. His mom, and the school, didn’t agree. Chris was homeschooled at the start of his school career and went on to attend Grandville Public Schools. His teachers and fellow students adored him. He never got a bad report. He was just such a good kid—he was kind and funny and he had this unique ability to empathize with others, something rare for most adults, let alone for a young kid. This quality made him an outstanding friend—evidenced by the countless shoes strewn about in the entryway of his home on a daily basis.
He’d pack his basement or his room full of friends—they’d listen to music—REM, U2, The Smiths—they’d brainstorm comic book ideas together, plotting out the story and drawing it over sheets of paper, or they’d build forts or some strange contraption out of the massive piles of junk Chris kept (not so tidily) in his room. But he’d be the first to correct you—don’t call it junk. It wasn’t junk to Chris—the old bottle caps, the rusty pieces of metal, the plastic bottles, the large chunks of styrofoam—he found beauty in it, a purpose and a place for all of it.
That same attitude toward his “treasures” carried over to his family, his friends, his classmates—pretty much anyone and everyone Chris ever had the pleasure of meeting. He saw the best in others all the time and never once thought someone was too far gone, irredeemable. He believed everyone had a place at the table. He didn’t make judgment calls; he accepted people for who they were, whatever struggles they had…sometimes to a fault. One night Chris came home to eat dinner and refused to take his hat off. After his mom forced the issue, Chris reluctantly lifted his cap to reveal a giant triangle shaved into the back of his head with a K in the middle of it to symbolize the super popular AirFlight shoes. See, Chris had befriended a troubled kid in his neighborhood that the other kids refused to play with. Apparently this same kid fancied himself a hairstylist and was the one who gave Chris his new do. Much to the dismay of his grandmother, Chris liked the look.
While Chris loved hanging out with his friends, he also needed his alone time. He was the creative artist type—art was his favorite subject and he excelled at it—and he couldn’t think all of his creative, inspired thoughts with all the noise and excitement around his house. He’d tell his mom every once in awhile that he needed to fast from his friends…the fast would usually last for a day or so and then his room would be abuzz with people again. And his room was actually the safest place to hang out with Chris, at least compared to his car. Have you ever driven with Chris? Driving with Chris was a grip your seat, say your prayers kind of experience. And also, look before you sit. The crumbs and wrappers of Chris’ most recent fast-food stop were likely scattered around along with half drunk 2-liters and his latest burned cds.
In high school, Chris ran track and cross country, but he was never as passionate about sports as he was about people and art and music. He ran a side hustle in junior high drawing and selling caricatures of his friends to hang up in their lockers. He was an incredible artist, which oddly never manifested in his sense of style—Salvation Army was his go-to store. Matthew, his brother, also known as little Tol—Chris was V-tol, was his style guru.
Chris was also very resourceful. He once forgot to bring a pencil to math class, so a friend let him borrow one, but the teacher wouldn’t let him sharpen it. So, Chris, the problem solver that he was, used his teeth to whittle a pencil point good enough to write with. His senior year at Grandville high school, Chris was voted class clown…maybe it was because that time he wore a dress to school on a dare or because His senior picture for the yearbook was a shot of him in an outhouse with his pants around his ankles reading the newspaper.
When Chris was a junior, his faith really became his own; it wasn’t just a family thing anymore. He and his friend Dan McDaniel started getting really involved at Resurrection Life. Chris went to church whenever he could, he served wherever he could. He traveled to an orphanage in Mexico and per usual — all the little kids adored him there. He found one little girl in particular who he told everyone he wanted to bring home with him. Chris loved the least of these. He’d pour into kids in the youth group who were the outcasts, who nobody else gave a chance to and he’d love them and invite them into his life and in the process, completely change their lives for the better. He never held back his time, his money, his love. He saw the best in everyone.
Throughout his teen years, Chris worked hard. He and his brother had paper routes. In high school, Chris worked at Subway and Scott’s Signs where he started with grunt work but worked his way up to designing artistic signs. He also worked at Believe in Music on the side to get cds. He was all about his music. He would sign up eight people at a time with his house address to get free cds from BMG and Columbia Records. He had more than 2000 cds in his collection—from rap to pop to rock, he’d listen to anything.
After graduating from Grandville high school in 1995, Chris worked at Office Depot in the shipping and receiving department. His managers loved him because he could take something totally jumbled and messy and organize it. He was employee of the month on numerous occasions. He went on to work at Menard’s and then the Gerald R. Ford Museum where he moved up the ranks to become an armed guard. He was fascinated with history and he loved that job, he especially loved that he got to work second shift and he didn’t have to “deal with all the people.”
It was on a rainy night at Cornerstone Music Festival that Chris first met the love of his life and future wife Kasey. A group of concert goers huddled under a tent waiting for the rain to pass. Chris later told Kasey that he saw the moon shining brightly on her face—that she was illuminated to him. Kase on the other hand, wasn’t sure what to think. She was 17 and Chris was five years older—something she never would have guessed that weekend by his frosted tips, cowboy hat and bare chest…like I said, Chris and fashion!!!
But soon he won her over. She became good friends with him and loved how crazy he was. He was so entertaining, had so many friends and included everybody…typical Chris. And plus, what 22 year old willingly goes to high school prom? Chris didn’t care! He wasn’t embarrassed! In fact, he had a blast! It didn’t matter where he was or what he was doing, he could make anything fun mostly due to the fact that he didn’t give a rip what anyone thought of him. Chris was the guy who would order soup and a soda at the bar and not think twice about it!
Chris and Kasey married on July 21, 2001 and their first son Simon was born exactly one year after that on July 21, 2002. More than anything, Chris loved being a dad. He loved his childhood so much; he was a big kid. He embraced that and was never afraid to get on the floor and play and get into a kid world. He’d hang out with Simon and play mask figures and crack Simon up with all of his crazy figurine antics. After Amelia was born on December 21, 2006, Chris was on a quest to turn their yard and their house into a dream destination…from zip lines to swings to sand boxes to a playhouse to trampolines to a big bonfire pit to a long cement driveway for riding bikes and scootering—he wanted the very best for his family. He wanted it to be fun and inviting and open to anyone—his own kids, their friends, neighbors, youth group kids, a random passerby, whomever.
More recently, Chris took a job here at the Vineyard, where he and Kasey and the kids have been attending and serving for several years. He started out as a janitor and pretty quickly became the go-to person for everything building related. Every nook and cranny of this church has Chris’ fingerprints on it. He painted the walls. He changed the light bulbs. He built this table. He and his friend Robby built our coffee bar. Chris always had new ideas, better organizing solutions, bigger dreams for this place. He loved it here – I think partly because he could blast his crazy music through the sound system while he worked – and he took pride in his work. No matter if you were coming or going, Chris would always shout at you, “Thanks for coming in today. See you on Tuesday.” He said that every day.
You can look around and see the fruit of Chris’ long hours of physical labor, but what you can’t see is the life-changing impact he has made on the hundreds of hearts and lives who come in and out of these doors every Sunday, every week. You can’t see how he won all of our kids over with lollipops, piggyback rides and shopping cart races. You can’t see how he’s spent countless hours in the kitchen mentoring middle schoolers. You can’t see him chasing grade schoolers around the building with squirt guns. You can’t see him skipping service to talk with a struggling teen in the foyer. You can’t see him praying with hope and expectation for someone who has lost their way.
Two Sunday mornings ago, Chris was here walking around the parking lot, troubled. Tormented. See, Chris for years had been struggling with the ups and downs of depression and anxiety. He went to counseling. He studied himself. He learned how to cope. He continued to serve and pour himself out for others. But he could never fully shake it. While Chris was outside walking, out back there was a teenager who grew up in the church, who hasn’t been here in awhile. That student was troubled, tormented himself over the ugliness and pain of life, and told Chris, I don’t believe in God. I never have. And Chris, through his own pain and his own emptiness, said, I know, I get it. And then Chris laid a hand on his shoulder and said, Come, Holy Spirit. And God showed up. He met this student in power. In fact, the student said later it was the first time he’s ever believed God is real.
Less than one week later, Chris, overwhelmed and suffering more than any of us knew, took his own life for reasons we will never begin to understand. Up until his very last hours, Chris was right here working, talking, laughing and serving—doing what he loved with the people he loved at the place he loved. The paint will begin to chip and the lightbulbs will burn out, but Chris’ rich legacy inside and outside of these walls will live on forever.