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When people ask me what I do at my job at the newspaper, specifically what topics I write about, I tell them the shorthand version: old people, dead people and God.
Actually, I cover a lot more than that, but those three — old people, dead people and God — are the three areas that seem to fall to me. This past week I wrote stories about four people who had died, and only one of them I would consider old.
Of those four people, I attended three memorial services. As I write this, I have two services to attend in the coming week.
One of the memorial services last week was for a woman who had lived a long life. People who loved her spoke about her charm and grace, her kindness, her smile, even her good-natured Southern sassiness. When this woman learned she had incurable cancer, she set about making the last few remaining weeks of her life meaningful.
She got her affairs in order, as they say, and even planned her own memorial service, which was joyous and lovely. She had been a woman of strong Christian faith. Many who came to say good-bye were also Christians and knew they really were saying, “See you later.”
“We grieve,” the apostle Paul wrote, “but we grieve differently, not as those who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, my paraphrase)
Christians die with the hope of eternal life. Eternal — forever and ever — life.
Whenever I write about people who have died and I meet with their families, often there are tears, but just as often there’s laughter. I always ask, “What made him laugh?” or “Tell me a funny story about her.”
I ask what the person liked to eat, how she liked to dress, his favorite song. I tell the family that I want to paint a portrait of the person with words.
To me, it’s a holy privilege to be able to do this. I can’t bring the person back. I can’t take away their grief. But I can help them put their thoughts and memories into print and give them something they can cut out and hold onto, save in a scrapbook.
Truly, I’ve come to love doing these stories, although they take a toll, but not as you may think.
It’s not the sadness that concerns me; rather, it’s the danger of having a funeral or memorial service become ho-hum, just “part of the job.” I’m there with my notebook and press badge, but I dare not check my compassion at the door.
To some extent I need to put a shell around my emotions in order to do my job, but it’s to my detriment if I harden my heart to others’ grief. Scripture tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)
We need to be human with one another, and so sometimes I cry at the kitchen table as people talk about the one who has died. I’m not a huggy person, but doing these Postscript stories has loosened up my arms, and I’m quicker to offer them to those who grieve.
It’s no secret that most people don’t like thinking about death. It’s what we are all born to fight against. For the first part of my life, thoughts of death put me in a panic, but all that left once Jesus rescued me.
In the 30-plus years that I’ve been a Christian, I’ve yet to fear death. The actual dying I do fear, and I don’t want to go next Thursday; but if I do, I’m not afraid of what comes after. I know that God has an awesome eternity planned and that he’s graciously made a place for me in it.
I go to a lot of funerals, and the best ones are the ones filled with hope, the hope that Jesus has conquered death.
For those who don’t believe that, I realize that sounds simplistic and trite, or even like a bunch of religious “hooey.” But for those of us who do believe, it takes away the dread and fear.
“O death, where is your victory; O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)
Thanks be to God, because of Jesus, the answer is — gone!
Nancy Kennedy is an author and a reporter for the Citrus County Chonicle in Crystal River, Fla., a sister paper to The News-Democrat. She can be reached at (352) 564-2927, Monday through Thursday or at NKennedy@ChronicleOnline.com.