Writing Your Own Obituary

Writing Your Own Obituary

September 24, 2017
Romans 13:8-14

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

Yes, he wrote his own obit.

Do you think he felt depressed about this? You might think so, since the word “obituary” comes from the Latin word meaning “report of death.” But he didn’t. Instead, he felt a sense of relief. He said to The Wall Street Journal (July 20, 2016), “I had written probably the most important story of my life.”

Obituaries mean a lot. They are not simply death notices. Instead, 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, anything that reveals your essence. Bowling trophies. Rotary Club membership. Mission trips. Work as a voting clerk. “Don’t leave anything to chance,” said Vartabedian. The question is: How would you like to be remembered?

My friend Mauricio Erazo in Honduras has been a huge help to the Midlife Men on a Mission. Since the year 2004, he has been the host of our annual mission trips, all of which have included construction at the Youth for Christ camp near the city of La Entrada.

When we first arrived in 2004, Mauricio took us to the site of the camp. All we saw was a one-story dormitory and a tool-shed, plus a caretaker’s cottage that was missing its roof. Conditions there were very primitive — there was not even any electric service to the camp.

In spite of this, Mauricio took us all around the grounds, explaining to us how the dormitories would be expanded and a kitchen and a large auditorium would be built. He showed us where a confidence course would be constructed, and where a row of apartments for leaders would be built. He had an incredible vision for what the completed camp would look like, based on his desire to provide Christian programs for the youths of Honduras.

Well, guess what? His dreams have come true, and the camp has developed exactly as he hoped it would, plus the addition of a Frisbee golf course and a zip-line through the trees. It has been a joy for those of us in the Midlife Men to be a part of bringing this dream to life for more than a decade.

If I were to write an obituary for Mauricio, I would give it the headline: “Christian visionary.”

So, how would you write your own obituary? What would you consider to be your essence? Family, church, service … bowling trophies? Maybe you want to be remembered for having a sense of humor. A man named Joseph Purmort, who wrote his own obituary, revealed himself to be Spider-Man. He challenged his son to “avenge his father’s untimely death.”

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul gives instructions on how Christians can lead meaningful lives, ones that lead to inspirational obituaries. He challenges us to act in ways that fulfill the law of God by loving our neighbors as ourselves (13:10). All of the commandments, from “you shall not commit adultery” to “you shall not covet” can summed up in the word “love,” according to Paul (v. 9). Love is so important that it is the only debt that Paul permits. “Owe no one anything,” he insists, “except to love one another” (v. 8).

Tom Vartabedian knew that his time on earth was short, so he got busy with the writing of his obituary. At age 75, he was fighting stage-four gastrointestinal cancer, so he wrote that his death followed a “courageous battle” with cancer. And 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.”

In November, Tom died. A story in a neighboring paper said that the following words come to mind when the name Tom Vartabedian is mentioned: Family, church, heritage. Not a bad core for a person’s life.

We may not have stage-four cancer, but our time to love is quickly running out. 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 (v. 11). “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” (vv. 12-13). In other words, live your life so that Yena and I won’t have to lie at your funeral.

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

“Do for others,” said Vartabedian. “Love one another,” said the apostle Paul. However you phrase it, that’s the core of the Christian life.

So what are you doing today to write your own obituary? Every choice you make is adding a line to the story of your life. Kyle and Megan Symanowitz are choosing this morning to have their daughter Talia baptized, which will have a profound effect on their lives and her life. Every choice we make has a consequence. Whether you choose to 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 (v. 12). So write your story in the way that you want to be remembered.

Maybe you want your obit to report that you loved your neighbor as yourself (v. 9). To receive this 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.

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

Eddie’s resume was ordinary, but his obituary was extraordinary. “The motto he lived by was ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” it reports. “Eddie would do whatever he could do to help another. No task too big or too small to lend a helping hand.” Known as “the Fish Man,” he had a passion for deep sea fishing and frying fish. At his Baptist church, he was a member of the cooking team for a variety of church events.

Was Eddie Allen 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” (v. 12). A woman named Cathryn Thomsen spent most of her 93 years in Oregon, where she was very close to friends and family members. 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 men and women with the 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 and quarreling. Our challenge is not to pretend that we are perfect, but instead to “lay aside the works of darkness” (v. 12). 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.

The greatest challenge for each of us, as we write our own obituary, is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). This means seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus, and trying to be his hands and feet. No one does this perfectly, but as a community we can come pretty close.

After our second worship service today, we will meet for the Annual Meeting of our congregation. We’ll elect church officers and receive reports about the life of the congregation over the past year. This is not just a business meeting, but a chance to ask ourselves the question: Have we made an effort to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”?

Think about this as you read the reports that have been available for several weeks in the narthex. Have we been the hands and feet of Jesus in our Christian Formation classes, our Member Connections activities, our Mission Outreach projects, and our Worship services? Have we put on the Lord Jesus in the ways in which we have handled our finances, treated our church staff, and managed our church building and grounds?

If you want to do better in these areas, I invite you to support our plan for the future called “2020 Vision.” This is a capital campaign that will raise funds for improvements in all of the areas of our church’s life. We will have a catered lunch and a launch of this campaign on Sunday, October 22nd, and you are all invited to attend, along with your children. Take a minute during this service to RSVP by filling out the form on the inside front cover of your bulletin, and placing it in the offering plate. I want to hear the sound of papers ripping!

None of us wants to write an obituary for this church, which is why we are embarking on the 2020 Vision Campaign. But, the fact is that each of us is going to die, and each of us is writing our own obituary with the choices we make each day. I want to live my life in such a way that I’ll be remembered for serving this church, a congregation that has done Christ’s work by striving to be a true “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

Don’t leave anything to chance. Instead, focus on loving your neighbor as yourself, laying aside the works of darkness, and putting on the Lord Jesus. Such choices will create the core of a life worth living, and an obituary worth reading. Amen.

Cantwell, Bill. “Longtime Haverhill journalist Tom Vartabedian dies.” Eagle-Tribune, November 14, 2016, www.eagletribune.com.

“Cathryn Thomsen (1923-2016) Obituary.” The Oregonian, April 18, 2016, http://obits.oregonlive.com.
“Eddie Allen of Norwalk, Connecticut, 1949-2016, Obituary.” Baker-Isaac Funeral Services, October 26, 2016, www.bakerfuneralservices.com.

“Funny Obituaries.” Legacy.com, www.legacy.com.
Hagerty, James R. “Tell Your Last Life Story: Obituary Writing in the Selfie Age.” The Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2016, www.wsj.com.

Vartabedian, Tom. “Vartabedian: My Final Column.” The Armenian Weekly, November 13, 2016, http://armenianweekly.com.


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