Recently, while at my mom’s, we revisited family photos. I’d not seen many of them for years, in some cases not since my grandmother died in 1985. Since my mother is an only child, the pictures from her side of the family have all ended up with her and there are many of them, some very old. Luckily there’s been a couple of relatives over the years interested in preserving family history who labeled them with names and sometimes even dates. The oldest one is a tintype of my great, great grandmother when she was only ten years old. She’s standing beside her mother holding a doll. Based on her date of birth, the picture would have been made around 1879.
As interesting as the photographs are, tucked in a worn envelope I found something even more interesting. Aunt Maudine (she was really my grandmother’s aunt but we all called her “aunt” as well) had saved scores of newspaper clippings related to family members, mostly obituaries. Going through the yellow, fragile sections of newsprint I found genealogical gold: when someone died, what they died of, family members who survived them, etc. I was able to match all but a few of these documents to people in the pictures we have.
However, what impressed me most about these old obituaries was the overtly Christian nature of many of them. Sure they contained the facts we’re used to in obituaries today but they went beyond that, boldly acknowledging God’s sovereignty, the fleetingness of this life and the hope of the life beyond. Here’s a sampling:
My great, great grandfather, William Henry Hammock who died in 1901 at only 40 years of age:
Wednesday evening Mr. W.H. Hammock departed this life after an illness of twelve days. That dread disease pneumonia cut him off in the prime of life and usefulness, in spite of the best medical skill and tenderest and most constant attention of loved ones and friends. Only a short time before his death he told his wife not to grieve for him, but prepare to meet him in a better world…may the Father of life and love comfort the bereaved ones.
James David Cherry, one of my great, great uncles who died in 1923:
…He bore his illness with uncomplaining resignation and felt no fear at the thought of death. Christ to him was real and precious. God’s promises were his delight…To you who love him, knew his wife, sister and friend, this is the message he would send; Not dead, ah, no, dear friends, he is not dead for his life is hid in Him who said the resurrection and the life am I, He who believes on me shall never die.
My great, great grandmother (the girl in the picture above) who died in 1933:
…She was a faithful member of the Baptist church and was a true Christian…It is hard for us to give her up, hard for us to understand why she had to go. Yet we can see now in her life and in her death some of the unfolding of God’s plan
In her final years she was blind and very ill. Here from another paper:
…Her beautiful Christian character was exemplified by her unwavering faith through many years of patient suffering…Affliction had blinded her eyes to the beauties of this world, yet her face was ever radiant and her heart illuminated by the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, and faith…(we) meekly bow in submission to the will of our Father, believing that death for her meant only a message of love to come up higher where her blinded eyes will be opened to enjoy the beauties and glories of Heaven.
I have mixture of emotions as I read these. On the one hand, I mourn for the small town life my ancestors knew. Where the church was the center of the community and trusting Christ was something to be praised rather than derided. When the most significant thing about a person’s life was their relationship with Christ rather than their worldly accomplishments – even in the public square. Those days have gone.
On the other hand, I rejoice that, though times have changed, the God of my ancestors has not and He offers the same hope to those of us living today as He did then. I also thank the Lord for these godly men and women who are part of my heritage and look forward to one day talking with them when, as one obituary put it, we “meet in the sweet by and by.”