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The Gospel as Obituary, the Obituary as Gospel

Have you ever thought of the Christian gospels as obituaries? In many ways that's what they are - extended accounts of one person's life and death.

Across the ages, Christians of every stripe have understood that written accounts of someone's life and death can serve to inspire readers, even those who did not know the deceased. In the Roman Catholic tradition this found its most powerful expression in the veneration of the saints. Protestants developed their own variation of this tradition - they venerated "martyrs," people who died for their faith.

The image below is the "Teacher's Bible" of my great-grandmother Mary Fail. She had used it to collect news clippings of important events in her life, including many obituaries of her friends. She was, in effect, taking her friends and loved ones and "archiving them" amidst the pages of her Bible. These obituaries, too, served as "gospels" for her.

Even people who don't strongly identify with a particular religious tradition retain this sense that there is power in considering the lives and deaths of other people. I think of the deep appreciation that people express for the memorial videos that people are creating and sharing online in this time of pandemic, when funerals and memorial services are no longer being hosted in person.

But I also think of the enduring power of the obituary pages in both print and online newspapers. Any editor will tell you that they remain among the most popular pages of any local newspaper. If you have ever found yourself reading the obituary of someone you did not know, it wasn't just a casual voyeurism that led you to it - whether you were aware of it or not, you were trying to learn something about living from someone who had died.

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