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Writing Your Own Obituary

Thomas J Parlette

“Writing Your Own Obituary”

Romans 13: 8-14

9/10/17

Tom Vartabedian worked as a local newspaper reporter for 50 years. Over the course of his career, he wrote thousands of obituaries. In May of last year, he wrote one about himself.

You might think that would be kind of a downer, since “obituary” comes from the Latin word meaning “report of death.” But for Vartabedian this exercise gave him a sense of relief. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said, “I had written probably the most important story of my life.”

Obituaries mean a lot. Deeper than a simple death notice, they reveal the core of a person’s life.

So what should be included? Anything that is important to who you are as a person. Bowling trophies. Polka club. Mission trips. Volunteering for Meals on Wheels. “Don’t leave anything to chance,” says Vartabedian.

This 75 year old columnist in Haverhill, Massachusetts, recently taught a senior center class on writing your own obituary. Looking back over his career, he always found obits to be a chance to capture a person’s essence. “If somebody was kind to animals and rescued stray cats from the river, I would use that as the lead for that person’s obit.”

In his own 875 word obituary, Vartabedian wrote that his death followed a “courageous battle with stage 4 gastrointestinal cancer.” At least he hoped that it would be courageous. He wasn’t afraid of dying, but was really curious as to what’s on the other side. He wondered about heaven and said, “Hopefully, I’ll end up there.”

Vartabedian wrote his obit in May 2016. In November, he died. A story in a neighboring paper said 4 words come to mind when the name Tom Vartabedian is mentioned: Family, church, heritage, Haverhill.(1)

Not a bad core for a person’s life.

So, how would you write your own obituary? How would you want to be remembered? What would you consider to be your essence? Family, church, heritage… or something else?

A few years back, Arianna Huffington wrote, “Have you noticed that when people die, their eulogies celebrate life very differently from the way we define success in our everyday existence? No matter how much a person spends his or her life burning the candle at both ends, chasing a toxic definition of success and generally missing out on life, the eulogy is always about the other stuff – what they gave, how they connected, how much they meant to the lives of the real people around them, small kindnesses, lifelong passions and what made them laugh. So the question is: Why do we spend so much time on what our eulogy is not going to be?(2)

In our passage from Romans for this morning, Paul has some instructions on how Christians can lead meaningful lives, lives that will lead to inspirational obituaries and eulogies. Paul challenges all of us to act in ways that fulfill the law of God by loving our neighbors as ourselves. All of the commandments, from you shall not commit adultery to you shall not covet, can be summed up in the word “Love”, says Paul. Love is so important that it is the only debt Paul permits. “Owe no one anything,” he insists, “except to love one another.”

Tom Vartabedian knew that his time on earth was short, so he got busy with the writing of his obituary. We may not be in the same situation, but our time to love does not last forever. Paul tells us that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers,” so we better jump on every opportunity to love our neighbors as ourselves. “Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” urges Paul. “Live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

In other words, live your life so the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.

Our challenge is to live right and don’t leave anything to chance. We are writing our life story with the choices we make every day – choices that will eventually end up in our obituaries and our eulogies – the most important stories of our lives. In his final column, Vartabedian wrote, “What you do for yourself invariably dies with you. What you do for others lives on and forms legacies.”

Do for others. Love one another. Not a bad core for a  Christian life.

What, then, are you doing today to write your own obituary? Every choice you make is adding a line to the story of your life. Whether you perform “works of darkness” or “put on the armor of light”, you are revealing the core of yourself in ways that will eventually be reported. So write your story in the way you want to be remembered.

Maybe you want your obit to report that you loved your neighbor as yourself. To get that kind of write-up, you don’t have to climb the corporate ladder, achieve impressive political victories, reach a high rank in the military or invent a life-saving technology. You simply have to love.

Eddies Allen was born in South Carolina, the youngest of seven children. After completing high school, he moved north to Connecticut. There he worked for many years in local factories. He married his wife Beverly and together they had four daughters, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Eddie’s resume was quite ordinary, but his obituary was rather extraordinary. “The motto he lived by was “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” it reported. “Eddie would do whatever he could to help someone else. No task too big or too small to lend a helping hand.” Known as “the Fish Man”, Eddie had a passion for deep sea fishing and frying up his catch. “One of his greatest loves was to provide a hot batch of fried fish for any occasion.” At his Baptist church, he was a cooking team member for every church supper and summer picnic.

Was Eddie successful? Indeed he was. His obituary reports that “Eddie led a successful life because he loved everyone.”

Or perhaps your obit will say that you “laid aside the works of darkness.” Cathryn Thomsen spent most of her 93 years in Oregon, where she was very close to friends and family members. For more than 50 years, she was active with a YMCA group that met for potlucks, card games, camping trips and performing philanthropic deeds. Her obituary describes her as “an exceptional mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.”

But Cathryn’s story involves both light and darkness. “Cathryn was proud of her 39 years of sobriety,” says her obituary. “She was a mentor for many people with her story of how she turned her life around. She was an inspiration for so many and will continue to be so.”

Not every aspect of our obituary is going to be easy to talk about. Along with loving actions and honorable deeds, there may be drunkenness, debauchery, quarreling and jealousy. Our challenge is not to pretend that we are perfect, but instead to “lay aside the works of darkness”, as Paul says. The story of Cathryn Thomsen, a woman who turned her life around, is every bit as inspirational as the obituary of a person who never stumbled and fell – maybe even more so.

 

Perhaps the greatest challenge for us, as we write our own obituary, is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This means seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus and trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus. No one does this perfectly, But Henri Nouwen came pretty close.

After Nouwen died of a heart attack in 1996, writer Philip Yancey reflected on his life. Trained as a psychologist and theologian, Nouwen spent his early years teaching at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard – writing books and traveling widely as a conference speaker.

But then he realized that his own spirituality was being suffocated, and he made a major change. He moved into a home for the seriously disabled, and spent the last 10 years of his life caring for a young man named Adam. You might say that Nouwen “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and made a commitment to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Every day, Nouwen spent hours working with Adam  -bathing and shaving him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair and helping him eat.

You might think that this would be a big sacrifice for Nouwen, but it wasn’t. Yancey wondered if this was the best use of Nouwen’s time, and asked him if there was someone else who could take over the manual chores. Nouwen informed Yancey that he was not sacrificing anything, insisting that “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

The same is true for anyone who is willing to “put on the Lord Jesus.” We don’t need to live full-time in a home for the disabled, but we can be the eyes, hands and feet of Jesus in our own homes, schools, workplaces, churches and communities.

When we do this, we discover that we get benefits from the friendships we develop. Yancey writes that Nouwen “had learned to love Adam, truly love him. In the process he had learned what it must be like for God to love us – spiritually uncoordinated as we are, only able to respond with what must seem to God like inarticulate grunts and groans.”

Each of us is writing our own obituary with the choices we make each day. Let’s not leave anything to chance, but focus on loving our neighbors as ourselves, laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. Such choices will create the core of a life worth living and an obituary worth reading.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

  1. Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.5, pg. 19.
  2. Ibid… pg. 22.