Tombstones and Obituaries

Considering that my last name is quite unusual, it was a surprise to pretty much bump into this tombstone at Rock Creek Cemetery in DC. Tombstones register the last word, and this is a good one to take for my own, if (hopefully) a bit premature. “In Christ shall all be made alive”… I like it.

Why not be made alive while we’re still here? Have you ever read an obituary that was so dry and dull that frankly you wondered “what was the point?” Obviously we can attribute this to the editorial style and choices of the particular medium. Yet we can also reflect on what people value in their lives, what they want to be remembered for.

I love using obituary-writing as a Bible study tool… to get people to reflect on what they want this life to add up to, or how they would envision their spouses’ lives going as a result of their own impact (and thus how they would be mentioned in an imaginary obituary). Death imagined has a way of focusing people.

When a neighbor died while my children were elementary school age, we were horrified to not recognize him from the obituary in the august Washington Post. So the children and I wrote our own obituary for him and delivered it to his widow. It was full of reflections of what, from the vantage point of our next-door window, it seemed that he valued (walks with his wife, car washes, meals in the yard) — and it was devoid of career accomplishments and club memberships, which frankly weren’t evident as we interacted with him in the driveway for five years.

So yes, I’m advocating writing your own obituary for people you love as a way to reflect on their impact on you and the world. But I’m also advocating living so that your obituary is something you’d be excited to read. “In Christ shall all be made alive.” Are we alive?

If we’re each created in God’s image, and we are each unique, then all of us combined don’t begin to get at God’s mysteriously infinite essence, at his multiform manifestations… but we each get to do our part to glorify Him and to represent Him in our specificity and particularity and quirkiness.

International arrival and departure areas of major airports are some of my main places of worship. To see the diversity of humanity and yet the commonality of experience as family and friends greet or say goodbye to each other… that is nothing but a chance to thank God for His creativity and originality and for the way He knits us together with others.

Obituaries are a window into the worlds we see colliding in airports and elsewhere. They can excite me like almost nothing else when I catch a creative one, or one that really describes the person’s quirks and glory… for they remind us of the inherent “there’s nobody else on earth quite like you” essence of each of us.

This morning I found an “in memoriam” notice for a guy who died a few months ago. It was posted by friends, neighbors and fellow miniature golf employees, and it featured an unusual photo of the subject in some wild garb… but what I liked most was this last line of the obituary he wrote for himself: “Jack is survived by approximately 6 billion people worldwide.” To my mind that’s just as relevant as the usual “three nieces and nephews.”

What are our legacies? Creativity, particularity, manifestations of God’s glory… or dry resumes and a list of blood relatives that technically and hopefully “survive” us?


~ by Cary on June 11, 2008.

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