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Repairing my parents’ headstone

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Lester and Ruth Denison, my parents, grave marker (Credit: Jim Denison)

I have been in Houston this week with our oldest son as he begins radiation.  On the way back to Dallas this afternoon, I stopped at my parents’ grave.  My father died in 1979; my mother joined him in heaven in 2008.  The tree near their grave that was a sapling when Dad died is now a towering oak.  The cemetery has more than doubled in size since his death.

As I stood next to their headstone today, the first thing I noticed was that the date of my mother’s death was missing.  I presume it was broken off by a lawnmower or other maintenance equipment.  I went inside the cemetery office, where I met with an official who promised to repair the marker.

As I drove north along I-45, I wondered why this small issue mattered to me.  The date of Mom’s death is known to any one who is likely to visit her grave.  Anyone else who sees the headstone would assume she is still living.  And yet I had to do something to repair the marker.  Why?

It’s certainly not because she and Dad are still there.  People often speak of “going to visit” a loved one at the cemetery, but I hope they know that’s not really the case.  Jesus promised that he would prepare a “mansion” for us in heaven (John 14:2, KJV)–the Greek word originally signified the destination at the end of a journey.  Our bodies are vehicles for this pilgrimage; one day we step out of the car and go into the house.  That’s what happened for my parents.  We buried their “remains,” the “earthly tent” in which they lived on this planet (2 Corinthians 5:1), but they are not there.  The perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, the mortal with immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53).

Nor do they know the state of the marker on their graves.  “A great chasm has been fixed” between this world and the next (Luke 16:26).  For those in heaven, there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).  The residents of heaven, if they knew what was happening on earth, would certainly mourn.  My parents do not know that Mom’s death year is missing from her marker, nor would they care if they did.

I suppose part of my motivation is that I wouldn’t want friends or family who visit my parents’ grave to think we have been negligent in caring for their marker.  But the larger reason, I think, is that repairing their headstone is a small but tangible way I can serve their memory and honor their lives personally.  And that matters greatly to me.

My greatest fear as a child was that I would disappoint my parents in some way; my greatest desire was to please them with what I did.  Today I realized that I still feel that way.  My life still reflects on them, for good or for bad.  Who I am and what I do continues the legacy they have entrusted to me.

I now realize that the greatest way I can honor my parents is not by repairing their gravestone, but by fulfilling my Father’s purpose for my life.  If I will live for his glory and obey his Spirit’s leading, one day I will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).  And my life will honor my Father, and my parents, forever.