EPITAPHS – Capturing the Essence

Reading biographies is an excellent learning experience. We can always learn something from someone else, even if that happens to be a “good example of how not to be”, a phrase I heard my mother frequently declare. A book I enjoy reading is a compilation of brief biographies of hymn writers entitled “Then Sings My Soul” by Robert J. Morgan. Finishing the biography of a certain hymn writer, a simple phrase caught my attention. The author simply stated: “Eliza died in 1920, and her grave at Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia reads simply: ‘Eliza Edmunds Hewitt, Hymn Writer, Author of Sunshine in My Soul’ “. In the story of Eliza’s life, the author related that she was a woman who had a very full and meaningful life. She was a teenager during the Civil War, and because of her love for children, she became a teacher. She suffered severe injuries in an accident, an as a result, became an invalid and had to give up that vocation that she so loved. Even though her life was replete with pain and disappointment, Eliza chose not to let her circumstances take away her joy, and became a creator of poems and hymns. No doubt she could have had written volumes about her own life, yet it was summed up in seven short, simple words that live on: “Hymn writer, Author of Sunshine in My Soul”. Through the epitaph her loved ones had inscribed, the essence of all that really mattered in her life was captured.

A parade of well-known biblical figures marched across the screen of my mind, and I wondered what their epitaph would say, if they had them. Although there isn’t much evidence to prove the validity of it, I recently read that the tomb of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, was found and his epitaph says something to the effect of “Here Lies Lazarus. He Was Dead Three Days.” My mind wandered as I pondered on the Apostle John. Would his epitaph have said “John, the Beloved Disciple”? The inscription on the Apostle Paul’s tombstone could well have read “Here Lies Paul, Chief of Sinners, Saved by Grace”. We can imagine what would be fitting for David: “A Man After God’s Own Heart”, or Abraham, “Friend of God”. Can we envision Joseph’s tombstone saying: “Forgiving Brother, Showed Mercy”? Queen Esther could have had inscribed: “Beautiful, Courageous, She Saved Her People” on her grave. The essence of the most important character trait or accomplishment of these people could have been recorded to give the world a glimpse into their lives for millenniums after their departure. Curiously reading interesting epitaphs, I found that the words inscribed on the tombstones of both famous and common people reflect the spirit of what that person was or did. Some of the interesting ones read: “Jefferson Davis – At Rest – An American Soldier and Defender of the Constitution”. On the tombstone of someone whose name we don’t know, a loved one read: “Loving you, Mick, Has Made My Life Richer”. A gentleman named John Dryden (1631-1700) had the following inscribed on his wife’s tombstone: “Here Lies My Wife: Here Let Her Lie! Now She’s at Rest, and So Am I”. Alexander the Great is buried under the heading: “A Tomb Now Suffices Him For Whom The World Was Not Enough”, and Al Capone’s has three simple words: “My Jesus Mercy”. The list is unending; the inscriptions may be moving, joyous or humorous. They may be a fitting eulogy, or a prejudiced opinion of a “loved” one who perhaps finally got a chance to express what was left unexpressed in life; but in all cases, the epitaph attempts to accomplish the same purpose: to concisely reflect who the departed person was, or what was accomplished in the life that was snuffed out.

How could anyone ever even attempt to encapsulate 62, 94, 25 or even 10 years of achievements, struggles, gains, losses, joys and suffering into less than 10 words to display to the world? Where can the precise words be found that would portray a life that was lived to the fullest? I look down the road and see my own loving spouse and adult children after my passing. Will it be difficult for them to formulate seven, or 10 or even 5 words to inscribe on my tombstone? What words will they choose? How I’ve lived my life will determine that. Because of the uncertainty of life, I don’t want to make it complicated for them in the event that they be faced with this task sooner than we all think. How should I live my life from now on so that the epitaph they write for me speaks clearly and accurately of my values, my goals and my relationships? How should I live every day to reflect my faith in my Heavenly Father whose mercy is new every morning, and by whose grace I will be welcomed into His presence? Would the epitaph I prepare for myself contain essentially the same message that they would choose to inscribe for me? Regardless of how many minutes, days, years or decades I have left on this earth, I want to live what’s left of my life purposefully. I want to live it in such a way that my loved ones who remain when I’m gone have no doubts as to that purpose and my character, and that they might encapsulate the essence of my life in a few short, meaningful words that would be a testimony of God’s unending love and faithfulness to future generations. My desire is that God be exalted in my life, AND through my epitaph!

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