Death is a level playing field

"Death is the great leveler," writes Rob Johnston in Useless Beauty, his study on contemporary film and the book of Ecclesiastes (with a title taken from Elvis Costello."

Johnston told Ethics Daily that many Christians are uncomfortable with Ecclesiastes, and with some of the movies he writes about-such as Monster's Ball and American Beauty--because they show the messy and unpleasant side of life.

“Not all of us want to look within such messiness,” he writes. “Some in the Christian community, for example, are eager to jump quickly ahead, to look to the end of the story—to the empty tomb and life in Christ. We want doxology without lament. We have, for this reason, tended to avoid these troubling movies while thinking that Ecclesiastes is a dangerous book.”

Unfortunately, though we hate to admit it, Ecclesiastes is right. "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die." I'm in no rush for the season of dying, thank you very much, but the end will come for me, like everyone else.

It's a sobering thought, as the Wittenberg Gate points out:

Using the figures published by the CIA, found here, for world population and the annual death rate, I calculated that approximately 56.5 million people die every year, 4.7 million every month, and almost 155 thousand every day. The figures are staggering. Every minute 108 people meet the Maker in whose image they were made.

Day in and day out we go on with our lives hardly noticing the death and destruction all around us. Then something like this happens and we pause and take notice. Even if the one-day death toll from the tsunami should reach 150 thousand, as many suggest it will, it will still be only a blip on the statistical screen of the march of death. But we are not talking about numbers here. We are talking about people. Individual people with hopes and dreams, with other people who loved them, each with a unique blend of talents, desires, and personality

Hopefully, when my times comes, I'll get a good obituary.

Too bad Bart Barnes, formerly of the Washington Post, won't be around to write it.

Here's a sample of Barnes, from a reflection on his career as an obit writer that ran in the Post.

You have to love humor and irony, pathos and mystery, tragedy and romance. You have to be reverent and irreverent. You have to laugh a little or you'll go crazy.

I know. For 20 years I wrote obituaries at The Washington Post, at least 15,000 by the time I retired in March.

I loved that work. It taught me that even in the monotony of the daily grind, life could be funny and beautiful, surprising and strange. Death is no big deal if you don't love life. I only wish I could have met more of the people I wrote about

That last line stuck with me. I write a couple obits a month, and there's always a suprise. The pastor from Kansas whose lifelong passion was ballroom dancing. Thewoman whose parents narrowly escaped from China, sailing down the Yangze River and ducking from bullets in the early 1900s. The 108 year old man who could remember when cars were a new invention and airplanes of figment of people's imaginations. The young college student, a son of missionaries, who died in an accident at his summer factory job.

The person I'd most like to have met was Carl Einar Gustafson, truck driver and potato farmer from New Sweden, Maine, and honorary chairman of the Jimmy Fund . Diagnosed with cancer at age 12, he appeared on "Truth or Consequences" in 1948 with members of the Boston Braves and Dr. Dana Farber, a pioneer in treating childhood cancer. He was nicknamed "Jimmy"on the broadcast to protect his privacy.
Thousands of people heard the broadcast and sent in donations, hoping to cure kids like Jimmy. Since then, The Jimmy Fund has raised more than $160 million to
fight childhood cancer.

Most children with cancer in the 1940s that time did not survive, and over the years the staff at the Jimmy Fund assumed the original Jimmy had not made it. But Einar,was one of Dr. Farber's sucess stories. He went home to Maine, where he lived quietly for 50 years until his sister phoned the Jimmy Fund and told them he was still alive.

I never did meet Einar Gustafson, a lifelong member of the Covenant Church in New Sweden. But I was proud to write his obituary.

Barnes paid tribute to other unsung, quiet heroes, in his twenty years on the obit page:

We wrote the obligatory obituaries of world leaders and celebrities. But mainly we wrote about ordinary people, the rank-and-file bureaucrats and businessmen, doctors, nurses, teachers, letter carriers, plumbers, taxi drivers, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, most of whom had never had their name in a newspaper. They were the people who kept the social machinery running. Without them, there would be no civilization. I liked to call them the real people. They deserved an obituary in The Washington Post. There were gems and treasures among them, and real heroes who survived hell-on-earth experiences, recovered and returned to society, wanting no more than the love of family and friends and the chance to make a quiet contribution.


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