The Sum of Your Life

I have a habit that a few of my friends find disturbing. 

I like to spend time in cemeteries. Here’s why: walking through a cemetery puts life in perspective. The brevity of life comes sharply into focus when surrounded by gravestones. 

Twenty-five years ago, as I was walking through an old cemetery in Manassas, Virginia, I came upon a grave that had a profound affect on me. And it still does. It was apparent by the date of birth and death that this woman had not lived a long life. 

But it was the words written on the gravestone that captivated me. Engraved on the stone were five simple words that succinctly and beautifully summed up what I would surmise to be a life well lived. 

Could you sum up your life in five words? Could I? 

Let’s pretend our lives end today. When the engraver finishes the gravestone, he calls the people closest to us and says, “I’ve got room left—could you come up with five words that sum up the focus of her life?” What five words would they choose? 

Based on how they spent their money and time, I would suggest the following five words for a few folks I’ve known: 

  • She wore the latest fashion 
  • He was a sports fanatic 
  • She retired early and traveled 
  • His yard always looked great 

Far fetched, you say? I have another habit that may prove otherwise. I collect obituaries. I especially like the ones that have a headline expressing the perceived focus of the deceased’s life. 

For example: 

  • Paula Stephens loved her collection of dolls 
  • Leroy Lewis mastered the pipe organ 
  • Mayme Bilenger loved her Bonsai trees 
  • Lyda Hadley co-founded nudist resort 

I rest my case. 

When sociologist Tony Campolo interviewed 50 people age 95 or older, he asked, “Looking back, what would you do differently?” 

The top three responses were: 
  • Take more risks
  • Reflect more
  • Do more things that would last after we’re gone. 

Wise words coming from those nearing the cemetery gates, wouldn’t you agree? 

I don’t spend all my time contemplating life and death, but when I fly, I do ponder eternity. And with good reason. When I was flying back to North Carolina recently, the flight attendant made an announcement just as we were landing: 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Charlotte. If you have a connecting flight, we wish you a pleasant journey to your final destination.” 

We all have a final destination. And though we don’t get to choose how we are going to die, we can choose how we are going to live. And we can be certain of our Final Destination. 

Curious about the five words on the gravestone in Virginia? Here they are: “She went about doing good.” 

What are your five words? 

Teach me to number my days that I may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)


  1. After a friend on facebook had some great insight this morning on this post, I thought readers might like to know that a postscript to this story is that I prayed and asked God to give me 5 words NOW that I hope to live out, for His glory, with Him giving me the strength to do so. I like to think of them as God's Title for the Book of Kim!

  2. I would hope mine says : Loved unconditionally ,putting others first

    1. Thanks for sharing your 5 words, Colinda. I have found that by "naming' my 5 words, it helps me be more awake and aware to how I desire to see them lived out in me. I am praying for you today, and asking God to mightily bless you in this new year!

  3. Great post! I hope mine would say something like, "She lived for God's glory."

    1. Jenni, thanks for sharing your 5 words! Just seeing the words in print helps form a framework for living them out. Praying God's richest blessings on your life, Jenni!

  4. Replies
    1. Only an editor would only use 3 words when the word count was 5! Ha ha! Seriously though, your 3 words sum it all up, don't they? Out of our love for God everything else flows. Praying God's abundant blessings on you and yours, Lori!

  5. Kim, this is such a good post. Even though I've heard you share parts of it before, I was blessed to read it this morning in my inbox. My hope would be to be remembered for these 5: She kept pressing on (Philippians 3:14)

    1. I like your words, Gail! And thanks for your encouragement. I changed a few things from when I wrote about this previously. It started out as a Toastmaster's speech, so it has evolved quite a bit. The story continues to impact my life and I'm glad to have the opportunity to share it with others.

  6. Beautiful. I share your interest in graveyards.

    1. Thank you, Nita! And I am discovering that I am not the only one who walks in cemeteries!

  7. You might like this: Scroll down til you get to an article called "Speaking Graves."

    1. Thank you for pointing to me that page, Nita! I have bookmarked it so I can take my time and read all of it!

  8. My grampa and uncle were caretakers of graveyards and lived on the premises. I roamed the graveyards as a child and learned respect for those who had passed but also a fascination like you wrote about. I think it is good to think about the five words I would want on my gravestone. I don't what they should be yet. I remember listening to Mr. Covey (?) speak on tape about writing your own eulogy to be given at your funeral. The reason was to help you live more intentionally. As a Christian, we ought to think of how we are living our lives while it is still called today. Tomorrow could be too late!!

    Thanks for linking up this superb post on WholeHearted Home this week. You really compliment my blog!!

    1. Thank you for your encouragement, Judith. Yes, I think it help us live more intentionally. I was in a serious car accident in 2011 which underscored for me all the more that we only have this minute for sure!
      Grateful for your blog and the opportunity to share with your readers!

  9. Most interesting food for the mind. Here are my words: She fostered love for nature.

Each week I write a BOG (Brag On God) post. My prayer is that my words will invite you to brag on God, too. And together we'll make God smile.