December 8, 2017

What Will be Remembered?

I’ve become the chief obituary writer for the family. It started nearly twenty years ago when my husband’s grandfather died. I was a reporter for the metro newspaper, and it was a natural ask. Over the years, even as my jobs have changed, I am still the go-to person for obituaries for the family.

It’s not that I have a golden pen or some magical way with words. Rather I spend some quiet, reflective time thinking about the person, about the qualities that endeared them to others (and the ones that drove others crazy). I work to paint a picture of the person, to suss out those key details that give insight into personality and heart. Here’s a bit of the obituary I recently wrote for my husband’s grandmother:

Irma found contentment in being home, where she nurtured lovely roses, rolled out delicious homemade noodles, worked crossword puzzles, and could write the most beautiful cursive Q in cards to family and friends. She loved the Hummel figurines that her husband bought to celebrate special events, and she knew instantly if one was turned out of place. When family visited, she fluttered around her small kitchen, sometimes serving cookies or crackers and juice in jelly jars. Despite her small stature, Irma had a quiet strength, surviving two near-death experiences and running her own beauty salon at a time when few women worked outside the home. She gave generously to numerous charities but was frugal herself, wearing her favorite sweaters for decades while new ones sat in dresser drawers. Even after she stopped operating her home salon, Irma loved the weekly visits to have her hair styled. She was ever the lady, dignified, demure, and graceful.

I’ve had friends comment that they felt like they knew Irma just from reading the obituary. And family members have said that Irma’s obituary and others were true and honest pictures of the loved ones.

I’ve been to self-help retreats that ask me to consider what I want on my tombstone. No one, after all, wants something like, “Spent many late hours working in the office,” or “Didn’t miss an episode on Must-See TV.” Our heart’s desire is to be known by our relationships with others: Beloved Wife. Loving Mother. Faithful Friend. This exercise in contemplating my own legacy is often sobering, and I am confronted with my mixed-up priorities.

I wonder what it might be like for this same exercise to be conducted in community. Perhaps a vestry might spend time thinking about what the tombstone would read for the church: Would the tombstone read: “Faithful Community,” “Generous Hearts,” “Welcomed All”? Or would the tombstone be more critical: “Always Put the Building First,” “Stayed in Our Comfort Zone,” or “We Did It Our Way (and Always Have)”?

Let’s take this exercise a little further. What would the obituary for your congregation include? What salient details would paint a full and honest picture of the life your church? Is it the perfectly manicured lawn? The magnificent stained glass windows? Or is the relationship with others, with the community, and with God that most accurately tells your story?

Talk of tombstones and obituaries might sound depressing. But on their face, the inscriptions of tombstones and the words in an obituary are about life, about how fully we embrace and live it. When we come to an end, what do we hope others remember of us? And how can we change what we’re doing right now to make that a reality?