Pastors typically know a lot of people. Over the past 30-plus years, I’ve had the privilege of serving folks from a few different places here in Arkansas. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat difficult to keep up with each member from each Church. I would imagine you can relate. I suspect you’ve also lost contact with people you know. It happens. It’s called "life." People come and go through our lives. We don’t intend to, but we lose that once close connection we had with them. Unfortunately, the next time we hear about our old friends is when we see their name in an obituary notice in the paper.
That happened to me the other day. A friend from a former Church passed away. He was only 61. (I used to think 60 was old – but it’s getting younger every day, isn’t it?) When I read his obituary, I began to think about obituaries that are mentioned in the Bible. Here’s the obituary of Abraham, a great man of faith. "This is the sum of the years of Abraham’s life which he lived: one hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:7-8).
The obituary of Moses even includes information about his burial service. "So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor; but no one knows his grave to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes were not dim nor his natural vigor diminished" (Deuteronomy 34:5-7).
One of the finest obituaries in the Bible is David, former King of Israel. Found in both the Old and New Testaments, here’s the one from the New Testament. "For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed" (Acts 13:36 NIV).
I don’t mean for this to be a morbid article. But I do think it’s important for us to consider what will be written (and said) about us when we die. I’ve heard it said that the dash on our headstone is important to consider. You know what I’m talking about, right? On nearly every headstone, there is a day of birth and a day of death. Between them is a dash. That dash represents the life that person lived.
Over the years, I’ve noticed something that is fascinating (at least to me). Pastors attend lots of funerals, and I’m no different. Attending all those funerals, I’ve started to notice that practically everyone’s "dash" gets a lot better when they die. With all due respect, I’ve attended some funerals and after hearing the Pastor speak about the deceased, it made me wonder if I had come to the right funeral.
I’ve done the same, but only once that I can honestly remember. I don’t think it’s proper to mention the person’s name, but I was very embarrassed to later learn that my attempt to be gracious was not truthful. Speaking of honesty in a funeral service, one of my favorite movies is The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story. The predecessor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, Dr. Johns (portrayed by James Earl Jones) was pressured by members of his Church to preach the funeral of a man that everyone knew was not a very good person.
However, this man was the son of an influential member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. Johns reluctantly agreed to speak, and this is what he said. "This boy lived a trifling and worthless life. He went around Montgomery daring someone to cut his throat. Saturday night somebody obliged him. He lived like a dog; he died like a dog. Undertaker, claim the body. Choir, sing." Ouch!
The recent death of my friend has made me wonder again what will be said at my funeral. My late, great friend, A.D. Livingstone used to tell me that he was leaving a mourner’s fund so that his wife could hire folks to come mourn at his service. When he died, I spoke briefly at his service. Trust me, no one had to be hired – the Church was full.
Maybe you’re like me, and you sometimes wonder what the Pastor will say about you. I’ve heard that it’s not proper to "speak ill of the dead," but believe me – it’s done. I’ve told people that I’ve served through the yeas the same thing. If you want me to preach your funeral, please give me something to work with. While I always say that "tongue in cheek," there’s quite a bit of truth in there. Be gracious to the person you’re asking to preach at your funeral. How? Live a life that reflects a great relationship with God.
Remember when Jesus was asked about the most important Commandment in the Law? His response was epic! "‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).
So, what have we learned today? Make sure you give whoever preaches your funeral something to work with. You can do that by following the counsel of Christ to love God supremely and to love others as you love yourself.
In other words, live the life you’ll be glad you did when you stand before God.
John Burleson is the Pastor of Calvary Church of Conway. Email him with questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.