Reading Between the Lines

October 5, 2010 | 12 comments

The stories buried on the inside pages of the newspaper are often the most important ones. That’s why I spent the entire class hour yesterday talking about them.

On a classroom screen, I projected words in big, black letters: “How to Write an Obituary.”

I launched into the day’s lecture with firm words for these students, because this stuff matters: “Listen carefully, ladies and gentlemen. Because these are the most important stories you may ever write. And they will rarely land you on the front page of the morning paper.”


“There’s nothing morbid about a good obituary because a good obit is about life, not death.” — a New York Times editor.

The way I figure it, the words written in an obituary ought to be handled as delicately as financial news from Wall Street — perhaps even more so. These are often the last words the general public will ever read about you. And generations later — when your great-great-grandkids are filling out their family trees for a school project — that laminated obituary may be the only words left.

And so I always took the job seriously when I sat at the keyboard to tap out a life story. But with only a one-column photo and a few paragraphs of text, I always fell short. I could never tell the whole story.

Entire chapters of a life were missing:
the tears and the yawns and
the snorting laughter and
the famous apple pie and
the time he tripped while escorting his bride up the aisle.

I type: “Mr. Wilson was a life member of the American Legion.” And I hope the reader will grope into unwritten spaces to meet a boy-soldier who became a man while at war.

I type: “Mrs. Peterson was survived by two sons and was preceded in death by an infant daughter.” But in the word-void, we won’t know she lost her faith at the cribside rail. And we won’t know if she ever regained it.

I type: “Melva loved to garden, do crossword puzzles and knit in her free time.” And I wonder if they’d care to know that she died alone.

We don’t have adequate space to tell how the man who died of a brain tumor found faith in God because of it. Or about the baby whose Earth-story ended on the first page of Chapter One.

But we send these half-written stories to print because it’s all we’ve got. And they roll over the presses, and reach front doorsteps before morning’s first light. The rest of us pour a cup of coffee and grab the paper. We turn to the inside pages to find stories of death, stories of life.

And that’s when the truth of our own mortality starts gnawing at our insides.

Because when we read the obituaries, we’re faced with the truth: We’re all going to die.


I once had to leave family Christmas early because I’d been assigned to the obit desk that day.

Death has a way of showing up on its own timetable, and someone had to stand by the fax machine to wait for the death notices.

I still remember their stories: A teenager who died in a car accident. A young woman, just married, who died from cancer. An old woman who died in her sleep at the nursing home a few days after turning 92.

I was 21 at the time — about the age my college journalism students are now. Sixteen years later, I’m flashing Power Point slides on the screen about how we have a duty to record the lives of strangers.

But when I advance to the next screen, it gets personal.

In the photo, he’s is kneeling beside the girls before the Fourth of July parade. That’s Grandpa “Bop” Lee with my daughters, his granddaughters.

He died in January. And I wrote his obituary.

I posted the obituary on the big-screen and had the students read it to themselves. (That pain is still so fresh, and that knot in the throat too big to let words pass through…)

The obituary recorded his years as a soldier in Vietnam and a farmer. You’d know he felt closest to God in a fishing boat or on a John Deere tractor.

But still …
still …
the words were inadequate.

Words failed to capture rough farmer hands gripping crayons and little-girl teacups. Words couldn’t describe how much his children and wife loved him. Not really.

Because the real story of a life happens between the lines of black-and-white text. There will never, ever be enough ink to really tell our story.

Not for Bop.
Not for you.
And certainly not for Jesus, the Author of our faith. Even John had to stop the written story somewhere:

“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” — John 21:25


This week, in class, our students wrote their own obituaries. What would the first line of yours say?

Here are some of responses from a few of my Facebook friends.

As in life this Mama slid in sideways to her own funeral.

A man who did his best to work for the King while pursuing joy with gusto.

stubbornly lived a long time for as grumpy as he was … (From a former editor, the one who assigned me to obits on Christmas Day. He’s still my favorite editor of all time.)

Yippee! No more housework. (From a mother of seven.)

She left a house covered in dust and a worn-out Bible.

She finally found what she was looking for…

Jennifer Dukes Lee loved to tell the story,
‘Twill be her theme in glory.

Friend, would you share yours? What’s the between-the-lines story that belongs in the first paragraph of your obituary?


This is a repost from last year’s archive. This morning, I once again am teaching about the importance of obituaries, and this story came to mind.

by | October 5, 2010 | 12 comments


  1. patty

    There's such tragedy and yet divine poetic irony in our entire lives being summed up in a few paragraphs. We are, indeed, but a breath.
    What would I want mine to say? "she loved…"

  2. Kathleen Overby

    Dying alone…only words left. Let us read 'between the lines'.

  3. Megan Willome

    I wrote my mom's obituary in March. She wanted input into such an important document, so I came about nine days before she died, to interview her. I interview people for a living, but this was new. Her story was so good and far too long for a standard obit, so I printed up her interview and handed it out at the funeral. Everyone said they learned something from that piece.

  4. Billy Coffey

    This post is the finest piece of writing I've read in a very, very long time. Well done, Mrs. Lee. Very well done.

  5. alicia

    Beautiful. I payed respects to your Father in Law yesterday out at the cemetary. My uncle was laid to rest in the next row. I saw the name on the stone and had to stop and pray for your family.

    On another note- I remember a lady from town who passed on a few years back, and her obit was beautiful. It was a real tribute to her life for Christ. I was so frustrated by the bitties in the beauty shop who dared to complain that it was 'too long' and what if we all took that much space. I said what if we all loved God that much with our lives that it didn't fit into the standard form. That would be awesome.

    God bless you today, Jennifer.

  6. Warren Baldwin

    I have never thought of the challenge of writing a good obituary until reading this. As a history student/teacher, I could completely resonate with what you were getting at in much of this. We read a simple statement, such as, he was in the American Legion. What we don't read is that he spent two years dodging bullets, sleeping on wet ground, going two days without eating. That is all there in the "back ground," but it doesn't get the print space.

    The same thing is true of most church histories. Those who write them for the church leave out the stories of families who fought over the carpet color and wound up quitting, the decision to quit supporting a missionary so he had to leave the field, etc. Some of those conflict stories could shape the thinking of the next generation, but how unbecoming they are in a church history!

    Obituaries and church histories … what they don't tell says the most.

    Great post.

  7. JC Dude

    I pray that my story will continue in the lives of my children.

    Wonderful post!

  8. Sandra Heska King

    Do any news people write the obits any more? I thought the relatives did.

    My uncle died in AZ last week. Service today. I have looked and looked for an obit and can't find one anywhere. I don't think they did one.

    I'd like mine to say something like: She was a woman of many interests with the eyes of a child and a heart for her Lord.

  9. NRIGirl

    So true, thank you for the post. I now believe I understand the true meaning of the verse discussed. You are right, when words are not enough to describe a mere human being, how can words describe the fullness of the glory of God Almighty!

    Care to stop by for some Coffee with Jesus?!

    ~ NRIGirl

  10. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Good question, Sandra. Many newspapers have moved to obits written by the funeral home or family members. … But I still teach the students anyway, because it's a good exercise. Plus they still have to write feature obituaries when famous or semi-famous people die.

    Megan — Your story is fascinating. I love how you chose to print the entire interview. How meaningful. I can't even imagine what that must have been like to interview her. Have you written about that, Megan? … Would love to talk to you about that sometime.

  11. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Alicia — I cupped my mouth over my hand when I read that you were at my father-in-law's gravesite. I'm so sorry about your own loss …

    We really MUST get together, my friend.

  12. Thoughts for the day

    Oh I would hope they wrote that 'she loved'… after every thing else … She LOVED… her family, her grandchildren and most of all HER LORD.
    (Jeff and Sherri Easter wrote a song called 'she loved' it is a southern gospel song and very moving) That would be my request.


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