By Lisa Nichols Hickman
People tell us how they want to be remembered after they die.
Sunday, April 6th is National Epitaph Day.
Reading through a list of bizarre and unique holidays is fascinating for any month. Looking at this list during Lent can provide new perspective. We know “April Fools Day” unfolds as March gives way to April. But the first week of April provides ample opportunity for celebrating events such as: National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day, Don’t Got to Work Unless its Fun Day, Go For Broke Day, National Sorry Charlie Day, No Housework Day and Draw a Picture of a Bird Day. Which of these holidays do you want to celebrate?
National Epitaph Day stands out amid the myriad of options in its simultaneous opportunity for solemn reflection and humor that defies the grave. Epitaphs provide an opportunity to have the last word, to exert one last bit of control, to imagine the poetics of our lives summed up in just a few words of prose. One calendar of observances provides this invitation, “This day is a chance for control freaks everywhere to plan out what their gravestone is going to say.”
We can both laugh and stand in awe at epitaphs that range from the silly to the sublime. From the Hollywood antics of Merv Griffin (“I will not be right back after this message”) and Rodney Dangerfield (“There goes the neighborhood.”) to the holiest of expressions like the Shema of New York City mayor Edward Koch (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”), the “I still haven’t done enough” confession of social justice activist Dorothy Parker (“Excuse my dust.”), or the liberative exclamation of Martin Luther King (“”Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I’m Free at Last.”).
The video included in our scriptural reflection for today invites ‘ordinary’ folks like you and me to consider our epitaphs and how we might like to be remembered. The video also invites the possibility that as we work to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly, our epitaphs might be transformed over the course of our life’s work.
It is said that Benjamin Franklin wrote his hoped-for epitaph in his diary as an adolescent:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.
But in the end his gravestone simply said, “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”
Our scripture texts this week are an invitation to reflection on mortality. Ezekiel is asked at the hand of the Lord, amid a valley of dry bones, “Mortal, can these bones live? ” The Psalmist cries out as only a mortal might, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.” Paul knows, in Romans, that “the body is dead because of sin” but longs instead for “the Spirit which is life.” And in the Gospel text from John, Mary and Martha angered at Jesus for procrastinating in the face of Lazarus’ illness, cry out to him “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
These are texts that know the grave. As Lent unfolds, that long, uphill journey to Easter can not be completed without a walk alongside the gravestones to read the epitaphs these texts scrawl on our sensibilities. Those words on these graves haunt us because we know them so well to be true. We know them in our bones. We sigh them in our breath. Our blood tingles in the reading of them because we have experienced their depth in the complexities of our lives and grieved them completely: Full of bones (Ezekiel 37:1). My soul waits (Psalm 130: 5). In the flesh (Romans 8:8). In the tomb (John 11:17).
These epitaphs are engraved deeper and deeper because we’ve seen the photo of the two Bangladeshi garment workers buried in the rubble embracing each other to their very end after the collapse of the Rana Plaza as their workplace became their grave. We know these words to be true because we’ve seen the slump of bullet ridden bodies in Syria and the Ukraine and Southern Sudan. And though the polar vortex may have retreated until next year, we know it left its grip upon the homeless leaving death in its wake. We are able to see these epitaphs in our Biblical texts this week because we know too well the words etched on the graves of the ones we hold most dear.
The irony of an epitaph is that we well know how out of control we are in this complicated world and yet we long for that final word to stake our claim, to proclaim a legacy, to ask for forgiveness.
These texts know that irony as well. In the face of human longing for order and control, God reveals a wholly other order, and a whole new realm of control. Prophesy to the bones, the Lord says in Ezekiel. Israel’s iniquities are not marked, but instead redeemed. The one who raised Christ from the dead will give new life to you, that Christ is in you. And for Mary and Martha who lamented their advent, who longed for a Christ who did not appear to show up in time; they are surprised by their friend alive and unbound.
Human grief, human control, those all-too-human last words are unbound by the spirit alive and pulsing in the world held by God’s resurrective power. Each epitaph is amended and given life anew:
Full of bones? Not so, says the Lord who edits the epitaph with “Open your graves.”
My soul waits? No longer, says the Lord who rewrites the grave with “Redeemed.”
In the flesh? No more, says the Lord who revises and says “In the Spirit. Christ is in you.” In the tomb? Absolutely not, says the Lord who resurrects and rewrites “Your brother will rise again…Unbind him.”
There are epitaphs to be rewritten. In these stories, the biblical characters are beginning to understand that might just happen. And yet, they cannot begin to imagine what power over death Jesus will be rewriting when he offers the best epitaph of them all: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus conquers their graves only as prequel to his own.
As we consider our epitaphs, as we wonder what it is we will do with our dashes (that life that is lived in the dash between birth and death), as we ponder this journey to Lent amid the all too many gravestones in our neighborhoods and the global commons, may we find sustaining power and renewed strength through the Lord who says, “Prophesy to these bones” and thereby causes breath to enter that we might live anew, redeemed and completely out of mortal control.
Questions for Discussion:
- How do each of the Biblical texts in the lectionary reading this week address the theme of human mortality?
- Where have you experienced mortality on the journey to Easter?
- What do you hope your epitaph might say? What words would you hope that God might add to your expression?
Additional Resources for Further Reading:
McKenzie, Alyce M. “Lazarus Is Us: Reflections on John 11:1-45.” Accessed March 7, 2014 at: http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Lazarus-Is-Us-Alcye-McKenzie-04-04-2011.html
Panati, Charles. Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything & Everybody. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1989).
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008).
Lisa Nichols Hickman serves at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, teaches part-time at Westminster College and writes regularly for the Call and Response blog on the Faith and Leadership website. Her book, The Worshiping Life, is used by seminaries and small groups. In her writing and teaching she hopes to tug on hearts and minds to go longer, deeper, broader and higher to explore new dimensions in life and faith. Her personal experience is very much shaped by surprising new dimensions: the call to ministry, the birth of a daughter with Down Syndrome and a congenital heart defect, as well as all of life’s daily surprises as a parent, spouse and person of faith navigating our complex world.
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