The Undertaker

Tonight I told the boys I had a new book to pick up at the library for our evening reading. A friend recommended Ferrol Sams and his tales of Porter Osborn, Jr., a boy growing up on a Georgia farm during the depression.

Wyatt was eager. But Seth needed one detail clarified: “Does anyone die in this story?”

Last Friday, we watched Where the Red Fern Grows, the new version with Dave Matthews looking right at home in those baggy overalls. During the infamous scene that shall not be named, Seth was mortified. He cried out and jumped up on the couch with Miska and me and buried his head in the covers in a futile attempt to erase the horrors he had just seen. “This is a bad, bad movie,” he said, gulping down the tears. “Why would anyone watch this???”

Now you understand why, when he heard that a story was coming about a boy and a farm, Seth wanted to know whether anyone or anything would be meeting their maker. He’s no fan of death.

Fair enough, neither am I.

Still, we’re all heading there. The line about death and taxes may be tired, but it’s true. And I wonder why we don’t talk about it more, why we don’t plan for it more, why we don’t ponder if how we are living will help us be the people we hope to have been when the time for living’s done?

On the bookshelf next to me, I have a book by poet Thomas Lynch who also happens to have a day job as an undertaker. The title alone deserves a read: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch’s first page begins: Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.

Every year, come rain or shine. And it’s the same in every town and hamlet and village world ’round. There’s nothing much more common than dying, you’d think we’d be good at it. But we aren’t, least not most of us. A couple days ago, one of my friends mentioned that he’s thinking about reading an obituary every day during Lent, the spiritual discipline of remembering who was here, who lived and who isn’t living anymore. The idea isn’t to be morbid, but to remember, to “count your days” as the Psalms instruct. The point really isn’t death at all — but life.

Eugene Peterson once said that the pastor’s job is to prepare people for a good death. When you do that, you’re preparing them for a good life. On this month when we are thinking about beginnings, let’s also ponder endings. And then let’s live well toward that.

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