The Last Word
I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.
- Benjamin Franklin
The New York Times comes each morning and never fails to deliver news of the important dead. Every day is new; every day is fraught with significance. I arrange my cup of tea, prop up my slippers. Obituaries are history as it is happening. Whose time am I living in? Was he a success or a failure, lucky or doomed, older than I am or younger? Did she know how to live? I shake out the pages. Tell me the secret of a good life!
- Marilyn Johnson
Johnson, who hails from Little Rock, wrote an interesting book titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries. Reading it is a reminder that all of us have an appointment with death, when someone will write our obituary.
Most obituaries describe lives that endured for sixty, seventy or eighty years. Some are longer, some shorter. I still remember an obituary I read on August 7, 2000 featuring a picture of a young woman named Emily Denner. She was strikingly beautiful, successful in business, and only 36 years old. The cause of her death was unusual: a mountain bike accident in the high elevation near Red River, New Mexico.
Denner’s list of accomplishments was impressive, as were the gracious descriptions of her many outstanding qualities. She obviously continues to be missed by her family and friends. But the overwhelming feeling you get from looking at her picture is that this was a life that was really only just beginning when it was brought to a sudden and tragic end. It brings to mind the sobering truth, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (Jas. 4:14).
Few have spoken of the effects of death on the human family as eloquently as John Donne. In his Devotions he observes,
No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of they friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
As we face death’s looming shadow, author Stephen Covey suggests an interesting exercise to help us make our lives count. He proposes to imagine sitting among the guests at your funeral, as four people take turns speaking. The first is a member of your immediate family. The second is one of your friends. The third is a coworker. The final speaker is a member of your congregation. What would you hope they could say about you? What we would want them to say about us should become the guarding principles by which we live. One day our obituary will appear beneath our picture.
What it will say is up to us.