What obituaries tell you about a person's work and life
By Wally Kroeker
A young friend was surprised to hear that I usually scan the obituaries in our local newspaper. “You must be getting old.” I suppose so—I find more and more familiar names in the death notices. I read the obituaries because this is where I cut my teeth in the newspaper business. “Good place to learn reporting,” my first editor said.
I also check obituaries to see what they say about people’s work. A few read like a resume, with inflated litanies of professional achievement. Others do the reverse, skipping anything related to work. In effect, they say, “Look, this person had a life beyond work.”
Such was the case with my friend Jack. He ran a small music store near my home back when I was lurching through adolescence and dreaming of a career as a musician. I often dropped in to buy sheet music, records (remember them?) or a bottle of trumpet valve oil. Or just to chat.
A kind and wise older man who had played in a lot of big bands, Jack offered tidbits of counsel that helped stabilize my stormy youth. His little store, his means of livelihood, was more than a place of commercial transactions. For me, it was an inviting place of warmth and affirmation.
Then I moved away. When I returned many years later, Jack’s store was gone and he was dying. At his memorial service, I heard not a word about Jack’s long career or the place where he had mentored me. As I listened, I wondered if I had stumbled into the wrong funeral. Where was the Jack I had known? It was as if he had never worked. Perhaps those who planned his memorial service didn’t know his work was important. But it was important to me, at least.
Recently I heard echoes of Jack’s memorial when someone declared, “I’m going to write my own obituary to makes sure it says nothing about my business.” What a pity—not only because readers will be deprived of vital information, but also because he thinks there is little lasting value in the activity that has consumed most of his waking hours for four decades.
There was a time when gravestones told tales of those who lay beneath. Like this one from many centuries back: “Here lies Dion, a pious man; he lived 80 years and planted 4,000 trees.”
“When I die,” says William Rentschler, former chair of Medart Corporation, “I hope whoever delivers the eulogy will remember me as one who sought always to provide steady, decent, challenging jobs, which allowed good people to support their families, build and retains their self-esteem and (quoting Teddy Roosevelt) ‘work hard at work worth doing.’”
Here’s a task to kick off the New Year: Why not write your own obituary? Ponder how you’d like to be remembered. Include the things most important to you. Let us peek into your soul. If you are bold, show it to some close friends. Does it ring true to them? If not, why not devote this year to becoming the person you want to be? And don’t forget to include your work.
Wally Kroeker, a former Christian Leader editor, edits The Marketplace, a magazine for Christians in business published by Mennonite Economic Development Associates. From Kroeker’s book God’s Week Has Seven Days. Copyright © 1998 by Herald Press, Harrisonburg, VA, 22802. Used by permission.
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