In Search of Significance
by Scott B. Carpenter
"A GENTLE MAN AND A GENTLEMAN". This is the actual epitaph on the tombstone of Jack Dempsey, the great heavy-weight champion boxer. Interesting way to remember a man who relentlessly pounded other men's bodies for a living, isn't it? In life he was remembered for one thing, and in death there is an attempt to remember him in quite a different light. This is natural.
The death of so many famous or well-known people lately has given me pause to consider how I might be remembered when I pass from this life to the next. What will be placed on my tombstone? I don't suggest any of us make this a daily practice, but add a little humor and it could turn out to be a rather healthy exercise. Just consider these actual epitaphs found on tombstones around the country:
"Here lies Ann Mann, who lived an old maid, but died an old Mann" (dec. 8, 1767)
"Here lies Johnny Yeast, Pardon me for not rising" (Ruidoso, New Mexico)
"Here lies my wife: here let her lie! Now she's at rest, and so am I" (John Dryden, 1631-1700)
"Looked UP the shaft to see if the car was on the way DOWN. It was." (Albany, NY)
And then there's the man who, obviously, did not wish to be remembered at all; by anyone, nor for anything:
"I was somebody who was no business of yours" (Stowe, Vermont)
I think this is what many of us fear the most about death - being forgotten. I mean, let's face it. Centuries have past. Millions of men and women have lived their lives on this earth, working and playing, laughing and crying, raising a family or living alone, just getting by or, perchance... getting rich. But now, they are all gone. They fill our cemeteries. I don't know them. You don't know them. And anyone who did know them... has also passed on... forgotten (pause for just a moment and let this sink in). I'm not trying to be morbid or darken your day. Okay, maybe I am. But just for a few moments. I mean, even the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible considers attending funerals to be a very wise practice and worthy of our deep consideration. No. Really. It does.
"It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart (take it to heart). Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better (wiser)." (Eccl. 7:2,3)
Come on! Be honest. You've heard the same thing said for years. Maybe in a different way, but it all means the same thing. "Life's no party!" or, "Let's get serious! The party ain't gonna last forever. Then what?" Another way to look at this sobering passage from the Bible, is to picture someone known to be a "party animal" (I'm sure no one comes to mind). This person lives for the next social gathering. They thrive amidst the noise of the music, the taste of the food and drink, and the thrill of personal interaction with others. When they're all alone...? The television blares, the radio rips a tune, or the internet is their constant companion. The seriousness of life is kept at bay by busyness and noise. Then tragedy strikes. Someone dies. And for one, brief moment they're forced to take off their dancing shoes, put away the cake and cookies, come away from the security and noise of home, and face another kind of music - death and mourning. Whoa! What a downer. Now this party animal has the opportunity to consider the "uncertainty of life" in light of the "certainty of death" - the fact that, "Life is short"; and the question, "What are you going to do with it?"
You see, when confronted with the brevity of life, a wise man or woman will begin to ask themselves questions: "What is life all about?" "What is really important?" "Does my life count for anything?" "How can I live a more meaningful life?" or the all important question, "Where will I go when I die?" These questions, that weigh heavy upon our hearts and minds should, in some way, change us. The answers that we find should make us "better" people (as we read in Ecclesiastes). And then we won't have to worry about the earlier question, "How will other people remember me when I'm gone?" Just keep in mind; none of us are perfect.
"Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." (James 4:14)
Sometimes my family and I will travel the mountain roads in the early morning hours just as the sun is rising. The "vapor" hangs in the valleys as the mountain tops peek through the mist. What a gorgeous sight! But by mid-morning... it's gone; the vapor has burned off, and all that's left is the impression it made in our minds and even on our hearts as we praised God for His beautiful creation. Our life is just like that. We live our brief time on this earth, and we pass on. And all that remains is the impression we made on the hearts and minds of those who knew us - our neighbors, our co-workers, our church, as well as our family and friends. Perhaps a principle we lived by, a lesson we taught, a good deed that we practiced, will somehow "stick" to someone younger. And when we're gone, our lives truly "live on" in the life of that other person. And they, in turn, share it with someone else. Could we ask for more meaning than that?
Perhaps we believe our lives don't count for much. Join the crowd. I imagine that most of us feel that way. Those who know us the best, know far too many of our faults and failures. It seems the good lessons we could teach are drowned out by the foibles of our own humanity. I feel your frustration. I appreciate the insights of a certain man who realized that the end of our lives aren't written, until our bodies are in the grave, our tombstones are erected, and our souls have found their final resting place in heaven. This is the epitaph as it appears on the tombstone of a great American patriot:
"The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents worn out, and stript of its lettering and gilding) lies here, food for worms. Yet the work itself shall not be lost, for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by its Author."
What will your epitaph be?