So far this year I have had the privilege of playing the piano or organ for nine funerals. I typically play for between five and ten funerals a year – and it’s only July! In the 31 days from June 1 through July 1 of this year, I played for five of those funerals. Needless to say, my mind has been spending lots of time thinking about funerals lately.
Every funeral is different, and I try to match the music I play to the emotional and spiritual needs of the family. Sometimes the person who died has planned their funeral and they have specific requests for what music they want at their funeral. Other times, family members have requests. Sometimes the pastor will offer suggestions. And sometimes I try to piece together what I know about the person and family and make a best guess at what music will be most comforting. One of these funerals was for a suicide and the family was in shock. One man had died suddenly, probably from a heart attack. One woman was close to 100 and had been in declining health for a long time. In all cases, loving friends and family were left behind and they needed to be comforted.
The musical requests for some of the funerals in June were rather unusual. Besides the popular funeral hymns of “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art,” I was asked to play polkas, waltzes, and folk songs.
After watching families struggle over what should and should not be included in their loved one’s funeral, I decided I need to add another item to my personal to-do list: to plan my own funeral. Hopefully, I will get that done before the end of the year. At least that’s my target date.
Then, one day last week, I read in Jimmy Carter’s devotional book that I should think about what epitaph I’d like to see on my gravestone. Carter wrote, “I’m sure that most of us have given at least some thought to what we want inscribed on our gravestone…. Our lives need to have the right purpose. We need to look upon our service to Christ as the greatest achievement of all. And when we start thinking this way, we’ll start shaping our lives differently.” [Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, ©2011, Zondervan]
That reminded me of a day in 1987, several weeks after my mom had died. My dad and Mim and I drove to Archie Monuments in Watertown, Wisconsin, about 25 miles from Cambridge. We were going shopping for a tombstone for my mom’s (and ultimately my dad’s) grave. Before we left on this shopping expedition I called my brother and my sister to see if they had any preferences for style, color, or anything else. Since tombstones aren’t something you shop for every day, neither of them had put much thought into it, so they had no preferences for us to consider.
My dad had put some thought into it. When we got to Archie Monuments, he picked out his preferred style right away, an upright granite stone with a smooth, curved top. Most of the stones at that time had coarse chiseled tops, but he was adamant about wanting a smooth polished top, and he explained why. He wanted bird droppings to be washed off by the rain. We couldn’t argue with that, so the first decision was made. I completed the style selection by choosing a very dark gray-colored granite. I thought a really dark stone with just a few lighter gray flecks of color would be striking, and actually beautiful.
But then came the hard part. What information should be included on the monument? The name KORTH would be on the top. On the lower left side would be ELSIE with her birth and death dates, and on the lower right side would be CARL with his birth and death dates. No middle names or initials would be included, but exact birthdates would be included, not just the years. My dad was as adamant on dates as he was on the smooth top surface of the stone. I have no idea why he thought it was important for future generations to know exactly what day he died. But it was important to him, so that was what we specified.
With the factual information and monument style determined, we moved on to the more creative design work. Fairly quickly we decided to have a pair of praying hands etched on my mom’s side because she firmly believed in turning to God in prayer for every concern she had in life. On my dad’s side we selected a flower growing up beside a cross as a reference to his being a farmer who trusted in God.
Then for the hardest part of all – choosing an epitaph. Fortunately, the consultant at Archie’s gave us a book of sample epitaphs to page through for ideas. The three of us finally agreed on “I know that my redeemer lives.” I think my dad was pretty indifferent to the words, but he didn’t have any better suggestion, and he was tired and wanted to go home. We had already spent about three hours making the decisions up to that point. But both Mim and I were confident that those words summarized the most important aspect of my mom’s life – she had a very strong faith, and her belief in God was the most important part of her life. And Dad would just have to live (and rest forever) with the epitaph we primarily selected for Mom.
I chose the font for the text on my own. I don’t remember its name, but it’s very legible and looks dignified. I also asked for the shadow effect in the engraving. We were finally ready to go home. Shopping for a tombstone is not an easy job. All three of us were exhausted, but pleased with our choices.
I don’t think I’ll go as far as designing a tombstone for Mim and me by the end of this year. I’ll be happy if I get my funeral planned. But thanks to Jimmy Carter’s urging, I might start thinking about what I might like our tombstone to look like, and what I would like it to reflect about my life and Mim’s life and our life together. I guess maybe this is something Mim and I have to work on together. Maybe it will be a job for next winter.