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Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

I would invariably learn something from the obituary that I hadn’t known before, even when I knew—or thought I knew—the person well. One time I learned from an obituary that a dear friend I called Skip for years was given the name Arlen at birth.

What other secrets had “Arlen” kept from me? I wondered. I have had my doubts about him ever since.

Anyway, I still read obituaries, not just those of people I once knew, but much more often these days those of people I didn’t know. Older people, I’m guessing, read obituaries more than younger people, though I have no data to back this up. I think older people spend more time thinking about what their own lives have amounted to. Or else, older people are just nosy.

Personally, I think New York Times obituaries are the best, though I may be biased because those are the ones I read every day. The Times has an entire staff, separate from its newsroom and editorial staffs, devoted to writing obituaries. And they’re good at it.

In a recent interview, a Times obituary writer explained that they don’t use euphemisms for death. For example, no one “passes away” in the Times. And no one “is called home to be with her Lord and Savior.” In the Times people just die. And when they die, they are never “surrounded by family.” Unless someone died alone and forgotten in a ditch by the side of the road, they argue, you can imagine that someone was present. I must say, I like this approach.

Obituary writers employed by newspapers often have a pretty good sense of humor, which in my experience is also true of funeral directors, a subject for another column. An obituary writer for the Washington Post recently joked that “God is my assignment editor.” He also noted that the “dead beat”—his term for obituary writing—is almost always more interesting than covering the latest city council meeting.

In a recent interview with NBC News, Rudy Giuliani said, with resignation, that the words “he lied for Trump” might be in the first paragraph of his obituary. But then he added, “If it is, so what do I care? I’ll be dead.”

The thing is, we do care. Most of us won’t be remembered for long, but for the months and maybe years our memories linger we want other people to think good thoughts about us. We want to be remembered for the good things we did or the positive impact our lives had. We want to be missed.

You won’t find many mean or unflattering obituaries, so when one turns up, it often makes the news. Here’s the first paragraph from one of my favorites: “Leslie Ray ‘Popeye’ Charping was born in Galveston on November 20, 1942, and passed away January 30, 2017, which was 29 years longer than expected and much longer than he deserved.” Mr. Charping’s family obviously wasn’t sorry to see him go.

I lived for several years in a community where the obituaries in the local newspaper were long—unnecessarily long, it seemed to me. Often they covered several columns, as though there was a competition for importance even in death. Every academic degree, professional organization and board membership was listed.

It’s not important to me that anyone remembers the brief time I served on the board of a non-profit back in the 1990s. I’m proud of my work, but it’s not necessary to brag about it in my obituary.

Then what should people say about us when we die?

When my father in law died a few years ago, I looked forward to reading in his obituary all the details about his life and his many contributions to the community where he lived. Instead, his children summarized an entire life in four words: “servant of Jesus Christ.”

It was surprisingly short, I thought, as though money wasn’t available for anything more, but I knew that wasn’t the case. As his children put it, “That’s all that really needs to be said about any of us.” And they were right.

I hope my children make a similar choice.

Photo: Birch Willey died earlier this month at age 88. He was a fine man who taught me about life and fishing in the Everglades. I will miss him.

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A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

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Called To Be a Loser

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s community columnist:

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

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My Annual Christmas Letter

Christmas 2018

Dear family and friends,

On January 28 I preached what will probably be my last sermon at the Eglise réformée française in Zürich, Switzerland, where the International Protestant Church offers Sunday morning worship and where we shared space with a French-speaking congregation.

I retired that day after nearly 40 years of ministry. Continue Reading →

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Crazy Poor Dutch People


Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s “community columnist”:

I wanted to call my new book “Crazy Poor Dutch People Who Immigrated to the U.S. and Became Rich, Republican and (Ironically) Anti-immigration,” but my publisher thought that title was too long and unnecessarily provocative. Plus, the allusion to “Crazy Rich Asians” is already dated.

Instead, I went with “The Truth About Who We Are,” which is not nearly as clever. It is available from the publisher and will soon be available through Amazon. Continue Reading →

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It’s good to be home

(Note: I started a new and lucrative career this month as a “community columnist” for the Holland Sentinel, the local newspaper. My first column is below. Look for my florid prose on the editorial page on the first Friday of every month. For those who’ve read excerpts on the blog from my new book, I’m happy to report that The Truth About Who We Are: Letter to My Grandchildren will be out next month from Wipf & Stock, a fine publisher based in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve seen the page proofs, and it looks great! Lots of photos and a Brouwer family tree dating to the 1700s, or about as far back as I have looked so far.) Continue Reading →

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James A. Brouwer and the Electric Car

Here’s another chapter – and most likely the last one you will see here – from my new book, now titled The Truth About Who We Are: A Letter to My Grandchildren.

To this point I’ve written mostly about ancestors who came to the United States and, against tall odds, not only survived, but thrived, making me proud to be descended from them. That was meant to be an inspiring story for you, as it has been for me. But the story is more complicated than that, as you must have recognized by this point. 

The separatist spirit that brought Dutch immigrants to the United States was sincere enough, but it could also be stubborn, rigid, and intolerant. Continue Reading →

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My Only Comfort in Life

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

When I was in third grade I started to attend weekly catechism classes at my church, something I would do until I graduated from high school. At the time I thought children all over the world did pretty much the same thing.

In catechism classes we memorized the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement published in 1653, in a city called Heidelberg, in what is now Germany. It’s a lovely medieval city. I have been there, and I hope you are able to visit someday as well. Continue Reading →

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My name is Brouwer

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

Where I grew up there was nothing at all unusual about the name Brouwer. Nearly everyone I knew – neighbors, classmates, teachers, even my pastor and dentist – had a distinctively Dutch last name, and so no one was ever puzzled by my name or had to ask me how to spell or pronounce it. Continue Reading →

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Those Embarrassing Names


(For a few months now I have been reading about and researching my ancestors, the women and men who came before me and passed down to me my name, my ethnic identity, my DNA, and of course my faith. Here’s a sample chapter from the new book which I’m – tentatively – calling “Letter to My Grandchildren.”)

Many of the people I knew when I was growing up had odd-sounding names. Not distinguished sounding at all, like I wanted them to be. The names were slightly embarrassing, I thought, as though in a previous life I had grown up with much better people, maybe in a much higher social class.

There wasn’t a Henry David Thoreau in the bunch. Or a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Those names and a lot of others like them always sounded remarkable to me, like you’d want to know them and read their books and be like them. Continue Reading →

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