Your Final Epitah

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Apr 03, 2010

"What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal."
Albert Pine

The older we get the more funerals we attend. And with each one we are relentlessly reminded that, sooner or later, people will be attending ours. We know the statistics - no one gets out of this life alive. 

We all prepare for funerals differently. From the time we take from our routines to the words we say and from the cards we write to the clothes we wear, each of us tries to express in verbal and non-verbal ways our care for the departed and those who remain. 

Before the start of a recent funeral service, Evie and I sat with other mourners looking at pictures on the screen of our dear friend. We find those moments deeply moving. Baby pictures. Parents. Siblings. Friends. Neighbors. Spouse. Children. Hobbies. Colleagues. Vacations. Travel. Happy days. A life well-lived. 

Life almost stops in those moments as our thoughts bounce around in our hearts like a ping pong ball. Everyone has a story. And every story began at birth with parents anticipating limitless possibilities for their child. But life does move on and everyone moves into routines and schedules and priorities. It starts at a beginning and, yes, everyone, eventually has an end. 

At those moments the notion of legacy is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. But it is not merely the legacy of the person whose life we are honoring. It is also about our own legacy. On the day of my funeral, what will be the legacy I will leave behind? In light of what really matters, will my life really matter? Will I have climbed the ladder of life rung by rung and when I get to the top, as someone said, I find it is leaning against the wrong wall? 

Years ago I was visiting with a funeral director about what goes through his mind when he's not on the job. I mentioned that farmers notice fields and barns and cattle and machinery. I mentioned that ministers notice churches and books and human behaviors. "What about you?" I asked. I will never forget his answer. "Let me put it this way," he said. "I don't walk through cemeteries on my days off." 

And though that comment still makes me smile, I do know some people who enjoy walking through cemeteries to read the epitaphs on the tombstones. Most of the time epitaphs are serious summaries of a person's earthly journey. For Evie's mother we chose these two simple words: "Finally Home." 

But some epitaphs make us smile. A cemetery in Silver City, Nevada, has these words on a tombstone, "Here lies a man named Zeke. Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek." 

In Waynesville, North Carolina, Effie Jean Robinson's epitaph (1897-1922) reads, "Come blooming youths, as you pass by; And on these lines do cast an eye. As you are now, so once was I; As I am now, so must you be; Prepare for death and follow me." 

Those words are not funny but underneath someone had added, "To follow you I am not content; How do I know which way you went." 

In high school I was given an assignment to write my own epitaph. I have long forgotten what I wrote but if I were to write it today, I wonder what I would want it to say. 

For now, I think two words might do: Mission accomplished. That probably feels rather task oriented but when I think of mission I think of family and friends and my relationships with them as well as things I would like to do. I will keep thinking about this, for sure. 

Whatever epitaph we are given, this Italian proverb says it all, "When the game is over, the king and the pawn go into the same box." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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