I think about funerals differently today than I did 30 years ago. It never occurred to me at that time to wonder what my kids and grandkids and pastors might say over my coffin.
Today, that day is easier to imagine. As I attended a recent funeral for a prominent and godly man I noticed who talked about him, what they said and what they did not talk about. If we want our friends and families to praise us for significant things, we must think about whether those things will be true in our lives.
In observing some encouraging memorial services, I've noticed some trends:
No one talks about the politics or even the celebrity of the deceased. Unless that's all there is. If there are funerals where someone says with wonder, "This guy had 200,000 Twitter followers," I've not attended them.
In fact, I've been surprised to find how intimate the funerals of some prominent men can be. Even when hundreds attend, the emphasis is not on the public accomplishments of the deceased.
No one testifies about how many arguments the deceased won. Clever zingers and unassailable logic are rarely on the list of things for which the godly departed are praised.
Even if we don't spend most of our time thinking about these things, we may spend more time on them than we do on more impactful things.
Family members talk about your marriage. They say, "Mom and Dad had a great love story for as long as I remember" or "Grandpa treated Grammy like a queen."
Children do grow out of the stage of shrieking "gross!" every time Mom and Dad hold hands. They apparently come to expect that parents and grandparents will care deeply for one another and show it. Children fall back on what they've seen in their parents' marriage as they face the inevitable challenges of their own. The people who watched us while they were learning to walk are still watching.
Kids and grandkids talk about your priestliness. At a recent funeral, the eldest son related that his dad, while on his deathbed, had asked during a late night vigil if the son was sure that he would go to heaven. This story was not told to show that Dad was getting forgetful in the last days, but it was told as an example of the deceased's sincere love for his family.
Other stories tell of the faithfulness of a mom who prayed for the salvation of her kids, or for their sanctification for decades after. Is there a time when you stopped feeling a responsibility for the spiritual lives of your family? I've observed that kids and grandkids appreciate it when we still watch over them; they expect it and might later tell proudly that we did it.
Your family will talk about your spiritual disciplines. I remember a great story a son told about his dad who, knowing that he would die even within the next day or two, was sitting up in bed memorizing Scripture. Another mom witnessed to nurses and doctors and technicians as they came through during her last days, and her kids remembered that.
A parent's Bible seems more precious on these occasions when the Bible is worn out and marked up—the well-used tool of a faithful disciple.
Your pastor will talk about your faithfulness to your congregation. I admire the testimonies of pastors and Sunday School class members who relate how the deceased loved her church. Deacons who served for 40 years or a teacher who impacted hundreds of students who passed through on the way to being pastors or teachers themselves are highly praised during uplifting memorial services.
Sometimes, a younger pastor will talk about how the deceased prayed for him, encouraged him or otherwise uplifted him after the time when the departed was unable to serve in a prominent role at church.
Those who are loving spouses, devoted parents and true disciples already have a legacy, even if we do not think yet about what those who remain will say—what will be true about us when this life is over.
Yet it's really not about the dead person.
I'm convinced that we will care little for our reputations once we are gone. It is about our stewardship of our days and our people. The testimony of, and about, those who have gone before is that faithfully loving God and loving people is the way to impact those who know you and love you best.
Gary Ledbetter is editor in chief of the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.