What Words Would You Want Inscribed on Your Tombstone?

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Photo Credit: Simon James

Years ago, when I was a resident member of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, my family and I walked through Princeton Cemetery. Once referred to as the Westminster Abby of the United States, the Princeton Cemetery is the resting grounds for such luminaries as Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr, and Grover Cleveland. We (or should I say I) were looking for Edwards’ grave. Some of the tombstone inscriptions stood out to us. The most memorable one included the following words: “I told you I was sick.” What words would you want inscribed on your tombstone?

As you ponder your answer, consider these words on William Borden’s tombstone in Cairo, Egypt. Borden (1887-1913) was an heir to the Borden dynasty, a graduate of Yale and Princeton, and a zealous and outstanding Christian who dedicated his life at a young age to serve Christ as a missionary among Chinese Muslims. He prepared for his missionary sojourn to China by studying Arabic and working among Muslims in Egypt. Only three months into his preparations, he contracted spinal meningitis. He died nineteen days later. In addition to the Great Commission scripture of Mark 16:15 as well as his life verse Psalm 119:11, the following lines were added when his grave was restored: “No reserve, no retreats, no regrets.” It was reported that Borden had written these lines in one of the margins of his Bible (for more on Borden’s story, refer here and here).

What words would you want inscribed on your tombstone? It is not a morbid question, but a very lively and vital one. One can live more fully the more one realizes one will not last forever. We often live with reserve, in retreat mode, and with plenty of regrets to spare, in part because we don’t live with a sense of urgency: today could be our last.

Borden was only twenty-five years of age when he died. You may be twenty-five or the reverse age of fifty-two, or double it to one hundred and four. The age doesn’t really matter. The focus does. One could deem Borden’s life a failure—he left behind him the family dynasty in the States to become a missionary, and yet he never made it to his destination in China. Like the twenty-nine year old Jim Elliot (1927-1956) and his other young missionary companions who were killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador, one might be tempted to think they threw their lives away. However, Borden, Elliot and the others made a dramatic impact on missions in the twentieth century. Their lives more than any epitaph in death spoke volumes to those who followed. Their lives still speak to us today. Still, those famous lines attributed to Borden or the lines Elliot wrote in his journal—“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”—can inspire us to mark our own lives now.

For good measure, I close with St. Paul’s words recorded in what is likely his final epistle, which was written during his second Roman imprisonment prior to his martyrdom in Rome: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8; ESV). Though an old man, like Borden and Elliot, he had “no reserve, no retreats, no regrets.”

While you and I may have many regrets to this point in our sojourns, there’s no reason we can’t start anew today by living with a sense of urgency in pursuit of Jesus and in care for others, loving God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). There’s no time to waste.

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