Telling the Dead Man’s Story


Editor’s Note: This story is written by staff writer Matt Appling, who blogs about church (and other things) several times a week over HERE. Do you “like” Prodigal on Facebook yet? What are you waiting for??

This room is full of complete strangers.

And most of these strangers are much older than I am.  They are wearing their best suits and dresses.  I’ve done my best to blend in.

The air is permeated with a somber feeling as many of them wipe tears from their eyes.  Except for me.  I am the only person in the room who has not shed one tear.  In fact, my emotions at the moment are not at all sad, but nervous.

It’s not that I have no emotions around death.  I’m just not feeling a personal loss for the man who is about to be eulogized.  I never met him before in my life. However, I am a little bit nervous, because I’m standing at the front of this room, with a hundred pairs of teary eyes looking at me, waiting for me to speak. I’m the guy who supposed to be giving this stranger’s eulogy.

Most people would rather be in the dead man’s place than at the speaker’s podium.

Hospital Visit

Just a few weeks before, I was in a hospital lobby, waiting to visit a sick member of our church.  Sitting across from me was a woman who could be my grandmother.

I don’t talk to strangers much, but the woman couldn’t help herself. She asked the reason for my visit, but she really wanted to tell me about her ordeal. She had spent weeks in the chair she now occupied. Her husband of many decades was dying just a few doors down the hallway. She had a lot of spark left in her. In fact, she struck me as a tough, salty kind of woman. She seemed like the kind of person who could put up a fight and get her way. But the exhaustion of the last month was carved into her face.

Her name was Bonnie.

I prayed with Bonnie, made my appointed visit and returned home. A week later, I returned to the hospital in the pouring rain. I wondered if Bonnie would still be in her chair.

She was right where I left her.

“If he dies, will you do his funeral?” she asked me.

I had never given a eulogy, much less for a man in an induced coma whom I had never met. But maybe he would pull through, and I’d be off the hook.

Telling a Dead Man’s Story

Four days later, I was definitely on the hook. John had passed away.

Contrary to what I was taught in seminary, a eulogy is not an opportunity for a three point gospel presentation.  It’s an opportunity to tell a story. And really, it’s a story that the audience already knows.

So I sat on Bonnie’s couch while she and her sister shared with me John’s story.

I was nervous that the man may not have had a story. Maybe he wasted his life in front of the television. I was actually relieved to find out that he had been an alcoholic…and even more relieved that he had been sober for twenty years, upon an ultimatum from his wife. Like I said, she had the appearance of a woman who could put up a fight and get her way.

John was not a church-going man. Alcoholics Anonymous had been his church, his confessional and his community. I asked to see John’s “Big Book,” the Bible of AA.

And there was John’s story.

The worn out book, as I had hoped, was littered with underlining, circling and highlighting.  It was a book belonging to a man who had demons to fight. The pen marks and wrinkled pages indicated the passages he relied on most.

No Copyright on Your Story

At the funeral home, I didn’t say anything those people didn’t already know. The room was full of John’s AA fellows. They bore the same scars he did. They carried him to his final resting place.

They were some of the most humble men I have ever met.

I dressed up John’s story with a little drama, a couple of jokes, and some Bible verses.  I read some highlighted passages from John’s own Big Book, and hoped it was right.

We spend our lives trying to get ahead, accomplish goals, impress people, and live well.

This is how I spend my life.

But in the end, none of us really have a copyright on our own stories. We aren’t in control of how our stories will be told. They will be told with inflections and emphases that we may not have picked. Maybe people will make more of our strengths, or our weaknesses than we’d like. Our stories won’t be the goals and life plans we so carefully laid out. Our stories will be marked with the relationships we leave behind.

Our stories will be told by the people we cared for…and maybe a twenty-five year old we never met.

  • Joy

    Very touching, Matt! It reminds me of my blog post I wrote yesterday… We should relentlessly pursue what God created us to be. Hopefully we can feel good about that at eulogy time :-)

    • Matt @ The Church of No People

      In many ways, the eulogies that people give for us are a great measure of our lives!

  • John

    I wrote my Dad’s eulogy, but I couldn’t deliver it. It was too hard for me. Perhaps not knowing the person, in the end, makes it easier. Glad Bonnie was able to find someone to do this for them.

    Also – and this is a little off-topic – does this story remind anyone else of the book Speaker for the Dead?

  • Duane Scott


    I loved this story.

    I don’t have many words today, just, you’re a great guy (#awkwardtendermoment) for having reached out to this woman in a manner that established such a quick friendship and trust.

  • bethany

    Matt, this is such a great story and SO well written. Even after losing mom this year, I hadn’t really thought of it that way – that we don’t own the copyright to what people will remember of our stories. As a writer, that makes me uncomfortable; I want to be the storyteller of my own existence. But if we live well and honor God, I think the stories people tell about us will leave a good legacy, like my mom did. I loved looking at this from your perspective as a young pastor. Great work!

  • Lucie

    Sounds to me like God handpicked you for this assignment, Matt! Glad you accepted it.

    • Matt @ The Church of No People

      You don’t get many of those times when you know for certain that you are in the right place at the right time. Gotta sieze them when they come.

  • Eva Pauline Scott

    Having been to the funeral of my mother-in-law recently, I have been thinking along those lines as well. I wrote a blog post based on a photo of my grandfather’s grandmother of whom no one left a story, just a photo. It made me wonder how people will remember me “When I’m just a Photo in Your Photo Album.”

    Perhaps Bethany you could write your story ahead of time. Then maybe you could have a copyright on it somewhat if your family uses it. Some people are doing video recordings and things like that I’ve heard (but never seen).

  • kingfisher

    Thanks, Matt, for sharing this. It’s so encouraging to me that people like you are receptive enough to the Holy Spirit, and open enough to strike up conversations with strangers. Thank you for caring enough to pay attention to a stranger. That Bonnie would actually be moved to ask you to deliver a eulogy for someone you didn’t know, is fairly incredible. That she would trust a stranger that much, speaks of your tender heart toward others. She must have felt something of Jesus inside you. I’m very much an introvert, and also live with precarious health conditions that pretty much close me down from being open and outgoing towards others if I’m not sure what sort of reception I’ll get. If I have to go away from home for something (or someone), I’m pretty much concerned with not showing too much on my face of the chronic pain I’m in all the time, lest others perceive it as a scowl at them when it’s really the self-preservation of trying to cope and still leave myself with enough energy to get myself back home again. I SEE the needs in others faces, or in overheard conversations or perceptions from others’ body language, and when I’m home again and in solitude and not having to fight the invisible arrows and forces that assail me when I become aware of human need, hurt, suffering but know I don’t have what it takes to communicate my caring directly to others, only then can I weep for those I’ve seen or heard about (or read about in the news) and pray deeply for them. I’m so grateful to read that there are people — especially the younger generation that we hear so many other dire reports about some of their numbers’ shallowness and self-interest — who are actually living out their faith in ways that touch others’ lives. How beautiful. How reassuring that God is still alive and on the move in lives today. Thank you.

  • Matt @ The Church of No People

    That’s the thing – I’m so much like you! I’m a natural introvert and have failed myself so many times! This was a one time thing when the Spirit gave me no choice – via a very outgoing old woman. Take heart and start small. God celebrates the little victories too!

  • Cassandra Frear

    Poignant and well-written. This was meaningful to me, since I have experienced a lot of death.

    I’m 50 and in seminary, and I loved your line about a eulogy is not an opportunity for a three-point gospel presentation. Years of ministry experience shifts our paradigms, doesn’t it? The idea that other people will tell my story one day is a scary thought. But ultimately, they will not have the final word. My story will be told in heaven by our Lord and it will be truer than the one I could tell.

  • Jason Cormier

    Spot on post. Our life story is the greatest legacy we can pass on after we die.