What You Can Learn From An Obituary

Date: October 14, 2022

I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.  Luke 9:27
John always reads the obituaries—so he says–and then, not finding his name listed among the deceased, decides he is still alive and well, therefore, has to get up and go to work.   Right!
On the serious side, do you ever read the obituaries?  Journalism professor Janice Hume reads them.  In fact, her doctoral dissertation is based on a study of obituaries over the past couple hundred years and how they reveal something of our values.  In the 1800s, says Dr. Hume, obituaries focused on the character of the person and his relationships.  But in the 20th century, the focus is on the accomplishments of the deceased—his wealth, his family connections, and what he did as opposed to what he was.
Is it not interesting that even our obituaries reflect the change in our value system?  What a person is, becomes overshadowed by what he accomplishes.  It is not character but accomplishment which our generation values.
Take time, friend, to occasionally read the obituaries, and notice not only that they reflect a person’s value system but also serve as a visual reminder that life is short.  Yes, there is the old gentleman who lived to be 93, but there is also the infant of six months whose tiny heart gave out before he had a chance to carve his place in the world.  Ages may be 40, another 57, and one 18.  Behind every one is a story and, with few exceptions, it is the story of someone who never expected to become a statistic.
Mark Twain, the American humorist, used to say that he wished he knew where he would die because he would never go near the place; but the fact is none of us much expect to ever die—something evidenced by the fact that even today most people do not have a will.  It’s not necessary to make one for a long time, they think.  And thus, put off the task.
Francois Fenelon, a seventeenth century mystic, observed, “We consider ourselves immortal, or at least as though [we are] going to live for centuries.  Folly of the human spirit! Every day those who die soon follow those who are already dead.  One about to leave on a journey,” he said, “ought not to think himself far from one who went only two days before.  Life flows by like a flood.”
Yes, certainly, everyone knows, at least theoretically, that a death certificate eventually follows every birth certificate, yet we seldom think of making peace with God or how we shall enter into His presence.  William Cullen Bryant talked about going “not as a quarry slave chained to his dungeon” but as a son who is returning home to the father.
Grave markers also have a kind of fascination for me—whether it is one in Macao where Robert Morrison is buried, or an old out-of-the-way mountain cemetery where a weathered inscription tells of a pioneer family who was killed as they made their way to a new frontier.  It isn’t that I have a morbid pre-occupation with grave stones, but their inscriptions—whether they be in the catacombs outside Rome or in the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem—tell a great deal about the values of the person who is so remembered.
Take time to walk through a cemetery or ponder the messages you find in the obituaries.  They soberly remind us that there is more to life than becoming company president or making millions. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus, and “he who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Yes, that’s good news.
Resource reading: John 11:1-57