Reading the obituary page is not among my favorite pastimes. Nevertheless, I recently discovered that even these lachrymose reminders of the transient nature of Homo sapiens often contain certain lessons of life well beyond the obvious one, that all of us will sooner or (hopefully) later make a once-in-a-lifetime cameo appearance on those pages.

Glancing at one such page of an American newspaper recently, I was unnerved by some of the notices. The typical obituary went like this (names changed): Flaherty, James. Beloved husband and father, passed away at age 87 on April 18 in Baltimore. A graduate of City College, he was an avid sportsman and never missed an Orioles home game.

Other notices were similar. Tom Buchanan “loved going on vacations.” Holly Firestone “was a top-flight golfer all her life.” Arthur Madison “loved his grandchildren.” While some notices recounted the deceased’s work for charities or support of hospitals and schools, most of them simply informed us what the deceased most enjoyed in life.

Obituaries are sobering enough, but these were downright depressing. How empty must a life have been when all that can be said of it after 120 years is that he loved going on fishing trips. There is nothing wrong, of course, with fishing trips, vacations are harmless, and loving one’s family is commendable (though even a beast loves its offspring). But surely there must be more to life than this.

Imagine the scene as Heaven’s angelic administrator interviews these souls:

“Tell me, Mr. Buchanan, what did you do with the life G-d gave you 80 years ago?”

“Well, I loved traveling.”

The angel seems not to be impressed. “Anything else, like something positive?”

“Well, I attended all the Orioles home games. I was a very faithful fan, even when they had a bad season.”

“Hmm. Interesting. Is there anything else you were faithful to?”

“Well, I loved my family and was faithful to them.”

“That is quite praiseworthy, but tell me, Mr. Buchanan, can you think of anything you did in your life that, say, might have focused on things other than yourself?”

“Umm, offhand, I don’t recall. I’d have to think about it.”

The Heavenly court is kind and understanding, but this might not be enough to convince the gatekeepers to swing the doors wide open….

As I read those obits, I thought of Tehillim 24:4, which asks, “Who will ascend the mountain of the L-rd…?” and answers: “asher lo nasa lashav nafshi.” This is normally translated as “he who has not sworn in vain by My soul,” but I have always wondered about this translation. Just because one has not sworn in vain, does he therefore merit a boarding card into Heaven? The literal translation is much more powerful: “He who has not borne My soul in vain.” That is to say, we are given a soul at birth and are bidden to improve it, elevate it, make it more pure. If, after we pass away, we return that soul to its Maker without having enhanced it, or having even diminished it, we will have borne it lashav, in vain and for naught.

In truth, the obituary pages can sometimes be a catalyst for a more noble life. It is useful occasionally to ask ourselves what the obits might say about us. Surely it will not be: “Chaim Greenberg lived to age 97. He loved cholent.” That would be embarrassing. Better to try for this: “Chaim Greenberg lived a life of great chesed and generous tzedakah.” Surely it will not be: “Max Cohen was a faithful poker player.” That would be demeaning. Better to try for this: “Max Cohen was a faithful Jew, kind and considerate, davened with great kavanah, and spent all his spare time studying Mishnayos.”

The obituary page need not be depressing. It can remind us not to carry our divine souls in vain, but to strive each day to elevate them in some way — through our behavior toward others and our connections to our Creator. His great gift to us is to be alive and to enable us to write our own epitaphs while we can still write — before we reach 120.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 710)