Several years ago I took my parents on an expedition, at their request, to the cemetery where they will someday be buried. We stopped at the main building, found a map indicating the location of their plots, and drove to the site. I parked the car, and as they made their way across the grass, I went on ahead until I found what they were there to see: “WIDDER.” The polished granite slab still had a border of pebbles around it, having just recently been set. A single date followed each name positioned below the surname, and a simple flower stem adorned the top corners of the mottled mahogany stone.
I stood several paces away, not really wanting to be part of this strange and surreal ceremony. After they made sure everything looked right on their headstone (phew!), Dad surveyed the grassy block where they’d be put to rest, and Mom appeared to check out their future neighbors. Several old trees shaded the area, but the late afternoon sun still cast long shadows—theirs, in fact—near the freshly laid stone.
If you’ve never had the, um, opportunity to watch your parents inspect their gravestone, it’s one of life’s more unsettling experiences. I think I know why they had their gravestone made and set in advance—my Uncle Al made his living making memorial monuments, and I’m guessing they wanted him to be involved in the craftsmanship of theirs, as he had been for many dearly departed Widders. It made perfect sense, but I still wasn’t interested in tagging along. I went because I more or less had to—and because there was a dinner at Chick-fil-A on the other side of the viewing.
Over the past month I’ve been participating in another plan-ahead decision of my living and breathing parents: writing the obituaries for their preplanned funerals. Besides being a grim task, it’s also profoundly difficult. First, there are the details—details that I really should know but somehow don’t. Where did my dad attend grade school? When did he graduate from high school? Where did my mom work after high school and what did she do? When did they build their first house? Second, which of these dozens of details are worth including? A paid obituary includes the barest of facts, save the handful of overworked adjectives that can’t possibly convey a lifetime, however long, of loving and being loved: beloved wife/husband of ____, loving mother/father of ___, dear sister/brother of ___. Even a longer obituary is nothing but Cliff’s Notes of a life.
Nevertheless, they must be written, so I’ve been sifting through the details, trying to decide which are most important to include. I’ve wrangled words into sentences and paragraphs. I’ve done my best to squeeze loved ones’ lives into impossible spaces.
But of course, I can’t. Life takes more than space, no matter how big. Life involves time. A granite slab may mark the location of a body and an obituary may appear in print, but both are spaces indicating that time ran out.
But we all know that life also requires more than space and time. Life involves essence. We are more than our tendons, ligaments, and flesh. We are more than the sum total of our accomplishments and experiences. We are personalities—mischievous grins, infectious laughs, wry humor. We give knowing glances, meaningful hugs, and sympathetic touches. In our better moments, we encourage, comfort, challenge, and inspire. No gravestone or obituary can capture the warmth of a relationship, the tenacity of a spirit, or the depth of one’s character. We are persons, living in a time and a space, and death takes away both.
The profound beauty, comfort, and truth of the gospel for those who believe is that God himself, an eternal Person, became a human person in a specific time and a geographic space; and the finished work of the God-Man, Jesus, means that the final resting places we mark with granite slabs are not final at all. The obituaries we write do not mark the end of a story. The bodies we bury will one day be raised, made new and reunited with their persons, to live and never die again. Because of the Incarnation—“God with us” in the flesh!—and because of Easter— “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!”—every grave we mark and every obituary we write is temporary. The long shadows that fall across this life will disappear, forever. O come, Emmanuel!
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.