“For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.” (Hebrews 11:5)
A friend of mine once told a story about her teenage son who many years ago was planning a graduation party for his high school classmates. In addition to the food and pool games, there would most likely be the presence of noise from the raucous crowd and loud music. In consideration for their elderly neighbor, the parents insisted that the teen drop by a few days prior to the event to alert her as to what she might expect. In a half-hearted attempt to apologize for the anticipated would-be-commotion, there was a pause in the conversation. The usually congenial neighbor looked directly at the boy and said, “Just when did you say this party is going to be?” Slightly hesitant, the youth politely responded – “Saturday evening, starting around 8.” The lady, then into her nineties, got a twinkle in her eye, and responded – “Oh good. I’ll want to be sure to open the windows, so I can hear the music.” Relieved, the soon-to-be graduate learned a life-lesson that day and captured a beautiful memory of an older friend and neighbor. Having now passed, her epitaph might well read – “Enjoyed the music of life through her many years.”
Each year during the Memorial Day holiday, many will visit cemeteries. As they place flowers on the graves of remembered loved ones, they may notice an epitaph or two. For those who have developed an interest in tracing their ancestry, they may also find themselves led to the gravestones of their descendants in order to collect information. There they will find two dates: one for the date of birth and the other indicating a date of death. These are commonly separated by a dash. Regardless of how long the person lived, one has to wonder about the totality of the life represented by that simple dash. The beginning date and the ending date are not as important as how the years were spent in between. On older tombstones, the ‘in-between’ is occasionally underscored by a short phrase honoring the deceased person. All I all, it has to be difficult to capture the essence of a person life in a one line statement. But sometimes, a few words like “Gardening in Heaven” or “Safely Home” is all that really needs to be said.
Epitaph inscriptions have evolved over the years. Sometimes they are comical, like the one of legendary talk show host Merv Griffin: “Stay tuned – I will not be right back.” At times, they signify something from the person’s life. For instance, the epitaph on the tombstone of famous singer and film actor Frank Sinatra reads “The Best is Yet to Come” taken from the title of one of the musician’s greatest hits. One should not find it surprising that on the marker of the celebrated preacher and activist Martin Luther King Jr., there is a quote from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The words reflect lines from a chorus to a classic spiritual – “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at last.” At times, epitaphs have a religious connotation containing frequently used passages of scripture. Examples include: “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21), “He that believeth in the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3: 16), and “To live is Christ; and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
The once shepherd boy who was called to be King David became known as a man after God’s own heart. God testified as such (Acts 13:22). What a wonderful way to be remembered. Ever consider how your life might be summed up in just a few words? When someone dies, it quickly becomes apparent where their priorities were when they were alive. There are times when I read an obituary that I find out far more about a person than I really wanted to know. For the Christian, what a tribute it would be if serving Jesus had a place in those conversations. Like David, we must realize that we are placed here for a limited time in His service, not for personal pleasure. For, “when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep (Acts 13;36). There are no more inspirational phrases than the ones spoken about those who followed Jesus during their days here on earth. For those who remain, we have assurance that they are now celebrating eternal life with Him. That has to simply be music to God’s ears.
REFLECTION: What do you think those who survive you could write as an epitaph representing your life? What kind of impact are you having on your generation? When you leave this walk of life – what kind of personal and permanent inspiration will you leave as a trail for others to follow? If you would be honest enough to examine your life and admit that you haven’t had the kind of positive influence that you would like to have, what steps might you start taking to lead you in that direction?