Thursday, August 21, 2014

Honoring the Dead in Life

'I'm copying my own obituary," she said nonchalantly while I was waiting to use the library copy machine.

I was astonished by her frankness to a complete stranger. Feeling stunned and awkward wondering how to respond, I replied, "That's a good idea. You will have printed what you want to say about yourself."

"Yes, I am an English teacher. I want things said the right way. It makes people uncomfortable, though, when I tell them. I met with the funeral director a few weeks ago and he was shaken by my desire to make arrangements. He was young and new in the business. He wasn't expecting someone like me to show up. I have a disease. It's something we all avoid you know."

She fumbled with ten or eleven sheets of handwritten papers, shuffling them occasionally, trying to get them in order. She spread two file folders all over the work table next to the copier.

"Do you know how to work the machine?" she asked.

I showed her the simplest way to copy many pages.

"I'll move fast. I'm as fast as General Motors."

I stood back to take in this woman who opened her life to me in a minute. She was tan and healthy-looking, medium-built, about mid-seventies. She wore a black baseball cap, white knit top, black jeans and tennis shoes.

While a stack of papers went through the machine, she continued to shuffle more papers.

"May I help you organize these?" I volunteered stepping over to the table where she was working.

"Well, those papers are my husband's obituary. These are mine. You take his, and I'll work on mine."

The pages were numbered, so I put them in order. 

"These are ready," I said handing her the stack.

"You go ahead and do your copying while I finish getting these in order."

I copied five pages from a book, and noticed she was still shuffling papers unable to reach any sense of organization.

"I'm done." I said.

"Thank you."

Reading a magazine I heard one of the librarians announced the library was closing in five minutes. I had not paid for my five pages.Returning the magazine to the shelf, I glanced over at the woman who was still at the copier struggling with multiple pages. 

"How many copies are you making?" I asked.


"I'll add your twenty-four copies to my five and pay for both.  The library is closing in one minute." She looked at me surprised, moving the papers all over the table once again.

Eight hours earlier, I heard a sermon during the morning worship service at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York, where I was vacationing, by the Rev. Dr. Allen Boesak, an activist born and raised in South Africa, currently teaching at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University.  He introduced the idea of prophetic faithfulness which interrupts the flow of evil for the reality of truth in the reign of God.  He continued, "God wills peace, justice and wholeness."

Boesak challenged the congregation, "Don't worry if you can't save the world.  Every act of compassion and justice - every embrace of one who is despised - saves one life. Interrupt the work of evil and bring the light of God's love and mercy to just one life."

I remembered Allen Boesak's words as I listened to the woman talk about her impending death. The evil in her life was an unnamed disease to which she referred several times. I did not know her name, but I saw her as a woman determined to leave her own legacy about her life for friends, family, and anyone else who will read her obituary.  I can't visit during her funeral calling, but I wanted to express compassion for her circumstances. I pray my actions, "made the face of Christ shine" as Allen Boesak concluded happens when we take the time for one life.

God we are surrounded by many lives wherever we go.  Bring us to awareness of those who have needs and guide us to respond however we can.  Amen.


  1. This encounter at the copy machine leaves me breathless. Her goal to make arrangements seems macabre and practical, but more powerful to me is your engagement with her, serving her, interacting with her, helping her. She seems so alone, with her husband's obituary among her papers and working on her own.

    The quote from Dr. Boesak is amazing. I'm going to share that with people--it's so encouraging to feel that doing what you've done here, reaching just one person, is a way to make a difference in this crazy, terrorized world. One person. That's something.

    What a gift you gave her that day!