I’m a real history buff. It is not that I am a proficient historian. It is just that I enjoy reading histories and biographies of extraordinary people who have influenced our world. My favorite book of this sort is “Jonathan Edwards: A Life” by George Marsden. It is a mammoth volume that serves as a history of Colonial America, a biography of the life of Edwards, and a theology book, all in one well written story. I am reading it again for the fourth time. Over the past 30 years I have read tens of thousands of pages from volumes of this sort.
I think this is why I’m drawn to headstones. Probably most of us have walked through a cemetery at one time or another and read the headstones. Most are pretty pedestrian stating the most basic of information such as name, date of birth and date of death. Other headstones say a bit more like “Loving Husband”, “Devoted Wife”, or “Dearest Father/Mother”.
Between the date of birth and death there is usually a dash (-) separating those two dates. One thoughtful author, Linda Ellis, wrote a poem (The Dash) about how it is the way we spent the dash in between birth and death that says everything about us and our headstone:
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.
To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.
So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?
Some headstones are humorous. One famous headstone in Boot Hill Cemetery reads, “Here lies the body of Lester Moore; Took six slugs from a forty-four; No less, No more.”
Famous voice actor Mel Blanc – who gave voice to characters including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig – immortalized one of his most well-known lines on his tombstone which says, “That’s all Folks”. For those not familiar with Looney Toons that was the famous closure to those cartoons. Funnyman Rodney Dangerfield continued his comedy even after death with this humorous inscription on his headstone “…there goes the neighborhood”. Actress Joan Hackett, who had a variety of roles during her career, got the last laugh with her epitaph, which reads, “Go away…I’m sleeping”.
Other headstone epitaphs are more poignant: Martin Luther King Jr.’s headstone reads “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last”. That, of course was taken from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “Death is but the key” reads the profound epitaph that can be found on the tombstone of best-selling horror writer James Herbert (1943–2013). While Herbert’s meaning might be different than a believer’s meaning of that phrase, it is nonetheless profound.
Some are heartful and emotional. Jonathan Dunderdale wrote of his beloved wife, “Beneath this dolesome veil she rests, her weary head serene, from busy life, she’s peaceful laid, no sorrows intervene.” “Well played”is the fitting tribute to English cricketer Harry Bagshaw which is followed by “For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He writes not that you won or lost but how you played the game.” One headstone inscribed only by the word “Sister” reads, “Beneath this stone two sisters sleep who’ve left us here a while to weep; in bloom of youth were call’d away, transient as theirs may be our stay.”
Perhaps the most famous Epitaph is that of Benjamin Franklin (though not on his headstone) reads:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.
Well, what epitaph would be fitting for you? What would those who chiseled and planted your headstone put on it? I hope that when my epitaph is written it will read: “He lived a long obedience in the same direction.” This is not original with me, but I have adopted it as a life mantra. I owe it to a book written by Eugene Peterson. But I have tried to live that mantra. Life, for a believer, is meant to be a long obedience. It is not a sprint but a marathon. It is not an on again off again proposition but a constant. It is not a wild ride going in any number of directions, but a purposeful march to a destination. God has granted me an internal “something” that has helped me stay long in the direction he set for me back on February 11th, 1975. While I have often faltered, I have never abandoned that direction.
I am convinced that a long obedience to Christ in the direction of gospel is what God desires for our lives. But will we be able to honestly carve this on our headstone? As we embark on a New Year, may we dedicate/rededicate ourselves to this long obedience moving in the God ordained direction for our lives.