After a 30-year hiatus in the Southeast, my wife and I returned West. Needing to know our community, I joined Kiwanis and started reading the newspaper – even the obituaries!
“Obituary” may get us thinking about our destination – or maybe not. Seeing the subject, maybe some have already quit reading or listening. Masters of denial, some of us would rather not think about our death. For example, Wilson Peak in Glacier was named for a legislator who never visited his namesake. Like him, we may choose “refrigerator blindness” – although this looming “mountain” – death – is our common destiny.
Think with me about the word, “obituary.” “Obituary” as “register of deaths,” is recorded as early as 1706. The meaning – “record of death including a biographical sketch” – is from 1738. Our word comes from Middle Latin – obituarius – “record of a person’s death.” And that comes from combining ob – “to, against, across, down” + ire “to go.”
Suddenly, we see the challenge “obituary” inherently poses. Its etymology raises the question: When we die, will we go “to” – “against”- “across” or “down?”
When we do speak of death, we may use metaphors. One is Native American: “He’s gone to the Happy Hunting Ground.” Dead cowboys “go to the Last Roundup.” Some phrases are hopeful: “He’s somewhere over the rainbow” – or “He’s gone to his rest” – or simply: “He’s gone West.” Gone.
Is there more?
Some of us deal with death by rehearsing euphemisms like: “They bought the farm” – “They checked out” – “They passed on” – or “They have gone the way of all flesh.” But, unless we are satisfied with shallow answers, those dodges don’t satisfy our souls.
Nor does being scientific. “He’s at room temperature.” “He’s breathed his last.” “He’s dead meat.” “He’s stone dead.” Mere observations don’t help when we are hungry for explanations.
Nor does being theatrical. “He’s danced the last dance.” “That’s all she wrote.” “He’s kicked the bucket.” Years ago, Dad and I went to see the hilarious1963 comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Jimmy Durante played “Smiler” Grogan who literally kicked the bucket as he died. As of August, 2012, of the 77 all -star actors and actresses in the massive cast, only twelve still live. Of those who have died, the youngest died at 51 and the oldest at 102.
When will you die?
For a year now, my 91-year-old Dad’s health has been fragile. Most weeks at Kiwanis we sing a patriotic song that includes the phrase: “land where my fathers died.” For some time now, I’ve been singing that phrase with a catch in my throat.
The Bible says there is a reason for that anticipatory grief. The Bible’s message is sure – the death of a person – your death, my death – is not a casual matter. A stained glass window in the Helena Cathedral depicts Joseph in bed – either dead or dying. Jesus, portrayed as a young man, stands beside Joseph’s bed. The verse the artist chose as the caption is heartening: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15.)
“But,” you say, “Pastor Steve, I’m no saint. What about hell?”
Earlier, we asked: When we die, will we go “down?” As difficult as it is for us to admit the possibility of hell, we can see that the Bible is clear. Hell is real. And, of the 23 times the New Testament uses “hell” – 16 times the One who spoke that word is Jesus. Imagine!
This is the same Jesus who told the thief on the cross: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). When the thief died, he was promised he would go “to” the most important Person in the grandest Place in the universe. How? On the cross, Jesus had “taken” hell for the thief so the thief could have paradise. Why? Jesus loved him. What an obituary!
The thief had called out: “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.” Let’s cry out to Jesus too – trusting his mercies for sinners like us. Let’s come to the One who says: “Don’t fear: I am First, I am Last, I’m Alive. I died, but I came to life, and my life is now forever. See these keys in my hand? They open and lock Death’s doors, they open and lock Hell’s gates (Revelation 1:17, 18).
Friend, when we read your obituary, may we not only read of your love for your community – but also of your trust in Christ. What an obituary!
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,