Reading Between the Lines

October 2, 2009 | 31 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?

Photo: Yesterday morning’s obituaries. Bop with the girls.

by | October 2, 2009 | 31 comments


  1. Cherie

    "Just when she thought she had it figured out it became clear that she did not. But that was always okay with her. She knew it was all about the process."

    I think that's what mine should say.

    That or…

    "SERENTIY NOW!" (he hee)

  2. Bina

    "The greatest thing she ever learned was that living her life without her control was the life that she was destined to lead…and life He was destined to use."

    This is my life lesson…as I have been trying to learn it for years! I can only hope that by the time He calls me into His embrace, I will have that truth down enough that others will see it! ha ha

    Thanks for the inspiration to think about the legacy I am choosing to leave.

  3. God's Not Finished With Us Yet...

    That's so awesome Jennifer! I love what you wrote, especially about "There's nothing morbid about a good obituary because a good obit is about life, not death."

  4. ~*Michelle*~

    WOW…..this is really great. I am with you on "because a good obit is about life, not death" too. I have always told my husband that I want a party celebrating my life when I go Home….with food, music, etc.

    I'll have to come back with my thoughts on my own obit….very interesting and thought provoking, isn't it? Trying to look on your life and what you are all about, and sum it up in a few short words. Also makes you reflect on what you have done/are all about.

  5. Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought

    This was beautiful. My dad asked me at the last minute to write his dad's obit. I was honored, but as you wrote, unprepared to put a life into black and white print.

    She sure did like to laugh.

    ~ Wendy

  6. janelle

    Her home on Church Street was never much to look at, but now she has a home in glory land that outshines the sun!

  7. nAncY

    i'm sure glad that Jesus can read between the lines.

  8. jasonS

    Another time you leave me speechless! 🙂 My life, who I am, what I think–it's always in a changing state… maybe that's what I'd say:

    "Jason was a man who saw the value of and embraced change, first allowing God to change him and then turning to change the world."

    That's what I hope will be said. 🙂

  9. Jessica

    Wow, Jennifer. God has gifted you in an amazing way. I'm so glad to have found your words.

    As for my obit opener…… Gosh. I'm not sure, but I know I'll be thinking about it all day and for the next several days. This one will haunt me.

  10. christy rose

    "Life began for her when she figured out that she did not have to have it all figured out in order to live and enjoy the life that God had gifted her with."

  11. FaithBarista Bonnie

    "Words failed to capture rough farmer hands gripping crayons and little-girl teacups."

    I cried reading this line. Good tears. You are so blessed to have had him in your life. I never had such a grandaddy. How special he was.

    I loved how you placed this verse in the light of your post:

    John 21:25

    I felt a spark of longing, wishing I could sit down in heaven with Jesus right now and get the whole scoop.. in between the lines.

    Enjoyed this, Jennifer!

  12. Laura

    Oh, Jennifer! You just delight. Who would have thought? But I am. When I come up with my first line, I'll drop it back by.

    Good teachers always inspire.


  13. bluecottonmemory

    "She taught her children how to grow old loving the Lord."

    When I wrote the obits in the newspaper years ago, the semi-colons about did me in! I felt the same way when I read an obituary, tried to read inbetween the lifes.

    What a wonderful post!

  14. Monica Sharman

    Ah. Not enough words for anything!
    Tough one, about my own obituary. Hmmm…

    I'm stumped.

    P.S. Thanks for the link to quail and manna!

  15. lynnrush

    Wow, thanks for this!
    Got me thinkin'

  16. Tea With Tiffany

    I feel somewhat normal to know you taught on obituary writing because that is the first thing when I used to get the paper I read. Why? Because I wanted to know what legacy people left. How old they were. If they made a difference. Ect. I thought maybe I was obsessed with death, I'd rather like to think I was obsessed with living.

    Thank you again for penned words that matter. I truly love when I can sit down with you. You always make me think.

    Words for my own obit? I will need to really think about that one. I want it to sing and ring true.

    I may stop back to add mine. For now, on the stop, I can't think fast enough.

    Peace and love to you,


  17. Doug Spurling

    Your time with Jesus shows. He specializes in bringing life out of death, like you just did.

    I woke up this morning around 4:00 with thoughts I had to write. I wrote, titled it, Life and death and scheduled it to post Monday morning 12:01 a.m.

    Some of the words scratched out this a.m…

    “While I watch this sun rise someone is watching it set. Life and death…I wonder why we call it life. We’re dying from the moment we take our first breath… our last breath on earth is our first breath in eternity and yet we call it death… I found a bridge built from an old rugged cross that will take me safely Home.”

    I think I’d the obit to say something like.

    “Well, he wasn’t in a hurry, but he beat you.” No.

    “See ya later.” No.

    “Douglas Lee Spurling found a bridge built from an old rugged cross, it has taken him safely Home.” Yeah.

  18. Doug Spurling

    Can I add one more I woke up think of this morning?

    He liked writing words.
    Love The Word.
    Lived to hear the words, Well done thou good and faithful servant.

  19. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Oh sweet joy to awake this morning to read these "first-lines" from you all. You radiate!

    It's hard to wrap up a life in a few little words, isn't it?

    I've often considered whether I ought to write my own obituary in advance, but thought better of it.

    I hope that one of my children will take to the keys one day, and find the words — huddled together — to piece together who they thought I was. There's something cathartic in the writing, and it seems I'd be taking part of the healing away from them if I wrote it in advance …

    You know what else? I think this is one of the most satisfying parts of blogging. We're leaving a forever-record of who we are for those who come behind us. It can feel so risky — can't it? — to lay our hearts out here like this. But we do leave footprints of ourselves for those who come behind us.

    Bless you all, dear souls. Thanks for taking the time to plod through that post and deposit a bit of yourselves here. You look beautiful.

  20. elaine @ peace for the journey

    This makes my heart melt, and leaves me wondering…

    what will Jennifer do with all of this? Surely, Father, you've meant for her words to reach further than this blog. Use her, Father, use her pen to explain to the world your love and your beauty.

    As for my epitaph…

    By faith, elaine finished forward with her King and found her final peace for the journey.

    peace~faith elaine

  21. katdish

    Fantastic, as always.

    Here's mine:

    I thought she would never shut up.

  22. Pfeiffer Photos

    As always, I shared this with my friends after reading…thanks for inspiring us again. 🙂

  23. Heather Sunseri

    What a beautiful post, Jennifer. I love the comment about obits being "about life, not death."

    Thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. It is very nice to meet you.

  24. Claire

    John's verse is my favourite Bible text because it speaks of the continuity of all that I do not know and so long to know.

    As for my obituary, I want it to simply read: She searched for Him always and she found Him and will continue to discover more of Him.

  25. Deborah Ann

    "She was a professional ballerina, but only in her bathrobe."

    Great post Jennifer! There were tears of sadness and tears of joy in this. You are a fabulous writer!

  26. optigrl987

    I enjoy reading the obituaries that are long and tell a story about the person. I feel the shorter ones do not do the person, who lived, any justice. Not sure what my obit would say, but I would love this on my headstone…

    She died laughing.

    Only because I laugh everyday and find the humor in many situations.


  27. Lighthouse Prayer Line

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  28. Rick D.

    Jennifer – you don't know how this post is affecting me. I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in August. Late stage – no symptoms until one day I can't swallow liquids or solids. I'd just started back to blogging sporadically after taking the summer mostly off; moved Concept 53 to free hosting on the WordPress site so all the links are dead, and then this happens.

    I'm posting on Caring Bridge pretty regularly – the docs think I have a good shot at being cured (5 years post-surgery cancer-free is their definition of cured) – and I'm pretty optimistic, but I do ask for your prayers.

    If I were to write the first line of my own obit, it might read something like "He finished the race out of breath from laughing with God." Understand, I have no desire to see it in print anytime soon 🙂

  29. Alisa Hope Wagner

    I have to say that I'm loving the "no more house cleaning" comment. Life takes so much maintenance.

    I can't wait until I can enjoy the ones I love and not have to feed them, take them to the potty, dress them, bathe them, pick up after them, etc. I want to just ENJOY them!

    Also, I would love writing to take only a few seconds and for a masterpiece to pop up on the screen from my mind!

  30. elizabeth

    Oh Jennifer, you are one of the first blogs I ever followed…you are an ispiration each time I click here.
    My obit??? I would want it to begin…
    She was a wholehearted lover of God.


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