This year was a big anniversary for my high school class, as it’s been 40 years since we graduated from Traverse City Senior High School in northern Michigan. For our July reunion, I agreed to create a memorial honoring our classmates who have died since that June day in 1979.
The project turned out to be more difficult and time consuming than I expected, as I spent hours scanning the internet for clues about the 40-some classmates (that we know of) who have died—trying to confirm each death while also trying to find an obituary and a photo. In some cases, I had to rely on microfilm at the local library to find pre-internet-era obituaries.
But God never wastes our time (Rom. 8:28). In fact, God used my two months of reading obituaries to teach me to love all 750 of my classmates—and to love most of them for the first time.
The Old, Old Obit
Obituaries—or at least death notices—have been around since 59 B.C., when Julius Caesar ordered the publishing and distribution of the Acta Diurna (Daily Events), which included Roman government and court news, as well as news on births, marriages, and deaths of prominent people.
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s led to the first newspapers, but even with such advancements in information technology, obituaries remained reserved for the most prominent and wealthiest people of the community.
It wasn’t until America’s Civil War in the 1860s that the deaths of common men began to be reported in the nation’s newspapers, as communities wanted to know about the demise of local soldiers who had left home for faraway battlefields.
Today as newsrooms continue to shrink, fewer obituaries are being written by journalists. But that doesn’t mean obits are going away, as families announce the death of their loved ones with paid obituaries in local papers or with an obit on a funeral home’s website. Or families can publish an obituary themselves on Facebook or a blog and easily share it with family and friends.
I eventually found an obituary for almost every one of my deceased classmates, and I’m guessing that the two or three I’m missing are out there somewhere.
Discipled by Obits
We think of obituaries as a way to honor someone we loved and valued, but they also impact people who read them—even people who didn’t know the deceased. Obits can help us better love our neighbors—or in my case, my classmates.
As I was reading the obits—and sometimes weeping over them—I recalled what N. D. Wilson wrote in Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl when he asks why God brings each of us onto his stage:
Are you here as an extra in somebody else’s scene? Are you here as a casualty? A comic throwaway? The girl who drops her top and starts the horror film? Are you here to fall in love by chance, be given a beautiful life, and then burn it all to hell in five short minutes at a Motel 6? Are you a cautionary tale?
We are all cautionary tales to someone, just as we are all inspiring heroes to someone else. I saw both in each obituary.
I had to read between the lines to find the cautionary tales. There were car accidents (Were they drunk? Were they wearing seat belts?). There were those who died “unexpectedly” (Drug overdoses? Suicides?). Several died of cancer or heart attacks or horrible diseases (Did they treat their bodies as poorly as I have treated mine?). There was a murder. Too many times spouses weren’t mentioned (Were they divorced? Never married? Were they lonely?).
The sin in this world is crushing.
But each obituary, each life, also was inspiring.
Each obit told the story of a person who was deeply loved by someone—usually many someones. Some had dozens of messages left on their obituary webpage.
There were teachers and artists and businesspeople and soldiers and models and waiters and truck drivers and nurses and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. Many lived quiet lives, supporting and loving their small circle of family and friends. Some were church-goers who loved their savior.
Each obit made me wish I could go back and know that person better, or maybe to know them for the first time. But I guess there are only so many people you can know in a class of 750.
One of my favorite obituaries was Oscar Antoine’s. I knew Oscar in high school but not well, and I never saw him after graduation. He died three years ago at age 55 and appeared to have had a full life despite his early death.
“Oscar was best described as a wonderful, patient and loving father,” his obit said. “He was the best cook in the area, and when a lemon meringue pie was needed for an event, it always came from his kitchen. He was the captain of yard decorations for Halloween and always enjoyed the family time for Christmas. He fell in love and married Karyann. Together they had a handsome son, Robert ‘Robbie.’ ”
Oscar didn’t make a billion dollars as an entrepreneur, and he didn’t become an actor, athlete, musician, or any of the other celebrities that most teenagers dream of becoming. None of us did.
But he sounds like the kind of man I would like to have as a neighbor. His obit said he was in the floor-covering business with his father, attended a Methodist church, fought a lifelong battle with diabetes, and was loved by his family and friends.
Oscar’s life was forgettable to most of the world, but it had value nonetheless. That’s because each of us has value in God’s kingdom and a story to tell—truths that God reminded me of this spring as I reacquainted myself with my high school classmates.
Ed Stych is an editor in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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