Photo provided.

By Travis Duerksen
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – In my two years at Mennonite Mission Network, I’ve written seven obituaries for mission workers who served with the organization, or one of its predecessor agencies. Stating that writing obituaries is not my favorite part of this job is neither controversial nor surprising. Yet, putting together obituaries is a necessity for Mission Network writers. We cover writing “beats,” locations around the world that often have a long and complex history of North American mission workers coming into their communities. Some were invited. Many were not. While our organization’s practice of “mission” has and continues to change, we relate with and celebrate vibrant churches around the world that were started through methods and practices we would not use today.


This history means that writing obituaries can be difficult. Yet, through my practice of interviews, researching, and archive skulking, I’ve come away with a few understandings that I have grown to appreciate through writing mission worker obits.


Lives go by quickly

I’ve had the fortune of writing obits for people who are older: septuagenarians and up. Yet, summarizing a person’s life to focus on their time of service means that I need to distill 80 years into about 500 words, which takes an adult roughly two minutes to read. It’s this tremendous ratio of time lived versus time read that makes me wonder how my next year of life will be condensed into the one and a half seconds that will represent it in my own obituary someday. What will be mentioned? What will be passed over?


Word count aside, as a writer I don’t set out to condense a decade of a person’s life into a single sentence or two. Instead, it often happens due to a lack of details. Many of the people that I ask for quotes and information are older as well, and simply don’t remember what the individual did 40-odd years ago. Eventually, that information was lost through time.  


Details are ephemeral…

I have no doubt that future historians will have a field day with the abundance of geo-tagged photos and Twitter posts chronicling our locations, ad preferences and minute-by-minute thoughts. However, piecing together obituaries has helped me realize that the details of our lives can disappear quickly. By nature, an obituary has the disadvantage of the best source of information entirely unavailable for earthly comment. Spouses may or may not remember dates or locations. Children or extended family may not either. Sometimes, the obituary subject gives me, the writer, the greatest gift of all: published memoirs. Yet even those are not always factually accurate. Archives may have 20 vibrant Kodachrome photos of a mission worker, or a single, blurry headshot scanned from the back of a yellowed prayer card. While there may have been dozens of better photos taken, it was the prayer card portrait that survived, and it was the prayer card portrait that was catalogued. Given enough time, all specifics erode, like a river stone that becomes smoother and less discernable as the water rolls atop it.    


…but relationships survive.

One of my favorite parts of writing obituaries is talking with not just family members and friends of the mission worker, but with people whose lives and spiritual journeys were changed through them. That means talking to coworkers, congregation members and people in the communities where these workers lived. Some people I interview never met the individual in question but are connected to a church or organization with which the mission worker was involved. Many of these churches and organizations now have local leadership. The North American mission worker retired, but the relationships formed, and the lives touched continued to create their own legacies.


Singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus described a relationship as two people choosing to be each other’s historians, and I firmly believe that responsibility extends beyond couples or spouses. In a very real sense, I am a historian for my friends, my coworkers and the people with whom I share life. Being privy to someone’s life journey is an honor and sharing about that journey is a great responsibility. As a writer who is given many stories to share, I think about that a lot. Sometimes I feel like I’ve given a story justice. Other times I fear I came up short. Yet, obituaries have taught me not to shirk the responsibility, nor take the honor for granted. So, when the time comes that some poor, hapless writer comes to me for a quote on someone recently departed, I, their historian, will be ready.


​​​​Travis Duerksen is a writer and multimedia producer for Mennonite Mission Network.



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