Writing My Eulogy
She’s buried six feet below the grandest of all the grave markers in the cemetery east of town. Her husband had selected an angel on a pedestal emblazoned with his bride’s photograph — an extravagant option nearly 100 years ago.
For a long time, I knew her only from the photo and a few time-worn words etched into the pedestal:
Anna Pexa nee Ahders
Born October 5, 1884
Died January 19, 1919
She was 34 years old — probably a mother, I figured.
On cold winter days like these, her angel is encased in snow. But when I visit the cemetery on warm summer days, I always stop at her graveside.
I imagine a life invested by a young mother on the Iowa prairie some 90 years earlier. And I consider: How am I investing my own?
Even since I was a child, I’ve done this. I have combed cemeteries to look at gravestones and imagine lives lived in The Dash*.
At the side of a veteran’s grave, decorated with tiny flags pushed into May dirt on Memorial Day, I imagine holidays spent in foxholes.
At a child’s grave, flat to the ground, I see wobbly first steps, hear first cries, feel kissed boo-boos.
In my home cemetery, as a child, I would visit the graves of Margaret and Helen and Doris. I would remember their cookies and funny hairdos and shaky-soprano voices.
Unseen snippets of lives would dance in my mind:
Heads bowed around a Thanksgiving feast.
Snorting laughter around an evening fire.
Painful tears around a child-sized casket.
As a child, I was drawn to the gravestones of children. I held white paper to their gravestones, and used crayons to make rubbings of their birth dates.
Today, I’m drawn to the gravestones of young mothers. I suppose it’s that part of me that remembers this truth: We’re all going to die. And none of us has any guarantees.
In the United States, a typical woman lives about 80 years, or 29,200 days.
If my math is right, and if I’m typical, I guess I have about 15,270 days left.
But If I were like Anna Ahders Pexa, my dash would be etched in already.
It wasn’t enough to know the woman’s name and two dates. I had to know more.
So I went to the courthouse to meet Anna Ahders Pexa. I combed birth records, death records, marriage records and newspaper clippings saved to microfilm.
And this is a bit of what I found: Anna Ahders was born in Inwood, Iowa. She’d attended country schools and lived on the family farm. She married Mike before she turned 20, and three years later, left for South Dakota where the couple farmed. Her husband once said she “bravely faced the privations of pioneer life.”
They had five children in all, and Anna’s mother had recently moved in. But the young mother had fallen ill, so she took a train alone to Rochester, Minnesota, for an X-ray. She died there of yellow jaundice four days later. Doctors said she also had an “internal cancer.”
“Mr. Pexa received a message to come at once that his wife was dangerously ill,” the news reporter wrote in the front-page story of her death. “He went to town to take the train and there found a message awaiting him that his wife was dead.”
“But in life we are in the midst of death,” the reporter wrote. “And Mr. Pexa grieves the more because she was called by death just when after years of pioneering and hardship they were getting comfortably fixed and in shape to take life with more ease.”
Our time sometimes ends cruelly short, and when I look at the photo of Anna and re-read old news stories, my own mortality gnaws at my insides.
How am I living my dash?
What does my heart beat for?
And do I leave a legacy that points to Christ?
To some, the thought is perhaps morbid — that I would scour cemeteries and 90-year-old archives for answers to life’s big questions.
But I find something I need here in the cemetery: I find a needed reminder that I’m pressing ever-closer to Home.
I used to be scared of dying, you know. But that was before I came to know that The End was really just the beginning.
Today, you and I are one day away from the new year. We are one day closer to the End — or rather, the Beginning.
If I’m typical, I have about 15,270 days left here. And if I’m not typical, well … I still have this day.
I know that each day, I’m writing my own eulogy. I’m not writing it on paper, but I’m etching it on history and hearts. What legacy — I ask myself — am I leaving today — number 13,930 of my life?
I want to be rich in love and slow to anger. I want to spread kindness and extend mercy. I want to make a mark on this life, not for my name’s sake but His. I want to leave a legacy of a Dash well-lived; I want to invest a life in love.
Today, I’m writing my own eulogy. And I want to write it well.
*The phrase “living your dash” comes from a poem originally written by Linda Ellis.
Post from the archives …
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Thank you so much for reposting this. I am fascinated by people's stories and think about stuff like this a lot. Sometimes it makes me think I'm a little creepy, so it's good to know I've got a kindred spirit in you! I've had a similar post brewing in my head (but a daughter's wedding rapidly approaching). When it's done, I'll be sure to link back here. Good stuff–definitely Facebooking this one. Happy New Year, Jennifer. You're already living the dash well.
I love this more the second time….
Thank you for reposting.
Happy New Year sweet Jennifer.
I noticed from the other comment that this was a re-post, however it isthe first time that I have enjoyed it. I thought I was the only strange one who enjoyed combing the cemeteries. I love to look and the names, dates and verses that etched on the stones and imagine the life that they must have lived in thier short –
Thanks Jennifer for sharing your heart–you have inspired me so much since I first found your blog. I have been thinking similar things lately, and with Ann in living in the "here" and now, of being fully aware of God's presence in each moment and living each moment full of Him, for His glory. I don't know if there will be much to say about me when I'm gone. But I hope they remember the God I love and serve.
Happy New year blessings!
Awesome, awesome, awesome! I love to visit cemeteries! Taphophilia! Heehee… Like you, I wonder often what happened in the lives of the people I see there. Thank you for making me think about my life… for making me think about the coming year… I plan to live purposefully. Hugs
What a beautiful post! I, too, love cemeteries, and love imagining the stories those stones hold. When I was in college I used to go to one near school to study—it was so peaceful and beautiful there!
i still have this day.
i love this.
happy new year jennifer!
So glad you reposted this Jennifer! I enjoy old cemeteries too and don't find them morbid at all. They really are wonderful places to reset your perspective on what you're doing with the days you walk here. Bless you for ferreting out more about Mike's Anna and for honoring them both for the lives they lived. You are surely writing a rich and soaring eulogy with your own days!! We are the blessed recipients of your grace and wisdom!! Happy New Year!!
I am so glad I am not alone with all these thoughts and ponderings! While I don't have a head stone to investigate I do have an 86 yr old mother with dementia and parkinsons who sometimes knows me and sometimes doesn't. She doesn't know all the love and happiness she gave to others in her life, she doesn't know how much she accomplished in her life, she doesn't have any "things" because nothing in her home, closets, drawers mean a thing to her, she doesn't even know they are hers. I don't think she knows how much I love her and miss "her". Every day I ask God to help me accept His will in this. I am well aware too that I don't know how many days I have left and I struggle to count for something and enjoy my life while taking care of hers. Hers, that in her mind only consists of: is it time for her ice cream now?
Thanks for the great blog as always. Happy New Year! God Bless you and yours. Barb
Jennifer, this was brand new to me, what a wonderful way to start out a New Year. I too stroll through cemetaries and wonder about the lives that once breathed and walked and lived….beautiful writing! Lori
How lucky am I that you picked a post from the archive…I had never read this before and it was GOOD!
Thanks for the New Year …new beginnings…new memories in the dash ..post.
Thanks for hitting me over the head with a plank! I wish I had read this yesterday when I was frustrated with the children and their not so loving behavior towards one another. This would have reminded me to breathe deeply and write a bettter page for my eulogy. Happy New Year my sweet friend. And thanks for putting me back on the path when I mess up.
These stories absolutely fascinate me too, Jennifer! When I was a young girl, my folks would take the four of us kids to a local beer joint on the weekends. Just down the street was a huge cemetery. My brothers, sister and I would play hide and seek behind those stones. Like you, I would stare at the engraved dates and wonder about the stories behind them. What an interesting story you have uncovered here, you investigative reporter! And such a challenging conclusion. Yes…writing my eulogy. With my life. The way I live my days–even the ho-hum ones matters desperately.
And that bird's nest? Just perfect. Love to you, Jennifer.
Looking at how we lived out life — in the rear view mirror — is always a healthy exercise, so we can better learn to live out our remaining days.
Not much to say so far? Get busy!
How we live our lives is important but Who we live our lives for is more important, and it always seizes me with a sense of urgent desperation when I think that nobody will know who I have lived my life for… unless I tell them in words that it's for Christ.
If I don't, than at most I will be a nice person living a nice life in a world of nice people heading straight for hell.
I love that image of the nest in the statue–what kind of nest (life) are we building in the midst of death?
Because both my parents got cancer in their '30s, I still feel shocked to be turning 40 and to still be alive. It baffels me. I still expect the blow ti come any day.
Hi Jen, Thanks for another great post. I, too have always been fascinated by the stories in graveyards….done the headstone rubbings as a kid with my cousin. Imagined the lives that were represented there….I was especially drawn to the headstones with photos.
Thanks for the reminder that we're all writing our eulogies daily…a very sobering thought.
I've always been fascinated with cemeteries but I am also fascinated with history and the two go hand in hand. I think the reason cemeteries never bothered me is because since I was old enough, I've always helped mow our family cemetery. But, I never thought of each day I am writing my eulogy. It really makes me pay more attention to what I say and do.
I remember and love this post, but this time, I noticed something different–she was called away from this life when she was almost "in shape to take life with more ease"
That is a lesson and a caution to us–to live for Jesus even while we're getting our lives in shape…for there may not be any minutes left when the "ease" part of life comes.
You are an incredible writer. This was so moving and so beautiful to read.