Hope in death

colin bale
Hope in death image

Epitaphs on grave monuments and headstones are often interesting to read. The inscription is meant to praise and pay tribute to the deceased person, but this is not always the case. Sometimes an epitaph is chosen to convey something more than telling the reader about the person interred below the marker.

After World War I, the Australian next-of-kin of service personnel who had died during the conflict were able to choose a personal inscription for the headstone of their relative if the person’s burial site was known. Many of these epitaphs contain the kind of messages you would expect but there are some that make you stop and ponder as you read them.

Take, for instance, the epitaph on the headstone of Sergeant Philip James Ball, buried in the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery in France. This Australian soldier, aged 21, was killed in action in France on March 28, 1918. His parents chose an inscription capturing the sentiment that many of those who lost loved ones in World War I must have asked themselves in the years following the war’s end:

                I FOUGHT AND DIED IN THE GREAT WAR

                             TO END ALL WARS

                            HAVE I DIED IN VAIN?

Was the sacrifice worth it? What did it achieve? It is certainly an epitaph that causes one to ponder.

This Anzac Day we recall the centenary of the last year of the Great War of 1914-1918 and reflect, not only upon the contribution of Australian service personnel to the final victory, but the cost of that victory, which was most keenly felt by those whose sons, brothers, fathers... were counted among the Fallen.

At the end of hostilities, almost 61,000 Australians had died on war service. This is a staggering number considering that our population in 1918 was just under 5 million. War memorials in country towns and the older suburbs of Australian cities testify to the extent of the loss. Australian historian Ken Inglis explains that if we think of an extended sense of family to include grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, then statistically every second family in Australia experienced direct loss.

How did those who suffered the loss of these family members understand the purpose of the sacrifice and what, if anything, consoled them in their grief? The epitaphs on the headstones give us an insight into those questions. My research into the inscriptions of World War I Australian headstones found four major themes: family connection, memory, loss and religious devotion.

Of these four, the most prolific is that of religious devotion. The religious inscriptions range from clichéd phrases to carefully chosen statements of personal belief. As a Christian, I found reading some of the latter ones encouraging and even challenging.

There is one religious inscription on an Australian headstone in the same cemetery as Sergeant Ball’s grave that I often recall because of it contains both a statement and a question:

REDEEMED WITH THE PRECIOUS BLOOD OF JESUS

IS IT WELL WITH THEE?

The inscription is on the headstone of Private William Leonard Walker, aged 18, who was killed in action on August 8, 1918. The first line of the inscription is taken from 1 Peter 1:18-19a and it is slightly altered but not significantly: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ”.

What does redemption mean? 

The concept of redemption, or ransom, for the terms can be used interchangeably, is well known in Scripture. Most probably the best-known reference to ransom in the New Testament is found at Mark 10:45, when Jesus said, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. The apostle Peter knew this word and understood its significance for the Christian faith.

In the context of 1 Peter 1, three questions need to be asked of this redemption: What have believers been redeemed from? What have they been redeemed by? What have they been redeemed for?

First, what have believers been redeemed from? Verse 18 spells that out – “from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors”. Life before they became Christians, says the apostle, was an empty life, a futile life, for life lived without reference to God as he has revealed himself in and through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is futile and empty. It is not leading to anywhere but God’s anger and judgement.

Of course, people don’t see it this way. It is only as the gospel is preached and its line is run over their lives that they are confronted with the reality of how God sees their lives.

Second, what have they been redeemed by? That is the heart of this little section: “not with perishable things, such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot”. The costliest things of this world were not sufficient to pay the ransom price to redeem us from futility and emptiness.

Perhaps you can think of things more precious than silver or gold today in our 21st-century world. They are still not sufficient for the ransom needed.

The Lord Jesus did not die for his own sin but as a redemption price to release people from their bondage to sin by taking on himself the wrath of God directed at sinners. How do we know this redemption price was the right one, acceptable to God? His stamp of approval is all over it. Peter tells us in verse 21 that “God raised him from the dead and gave him glory” – a sure indication of the bona fides of the redemption price. Our salvation is a very precious thing because of what it cost the Lord Jesus.

Third, what have they been redeemed for? In verse 21 we read: “through him you are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God”.

Christians have been redeemed for right belief! It is through Christ that we come to God; it is through Christ that we know how to relate to God. The apostle picks up two features – faith and hope. Faith unites us to Christ. In the first part of the chapter Peter wrote about Christian faith: “Though you have not seen him you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) … and faith in the Lord Jesus will keep us trusting to the end.

And hope? Trusting in God’s promise of redemption we hold to the certain prospect of the inheritance kept in heaven for us that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.

How should we respond?

I know very little about Private William Walker apart from what can be deduced from his service record. His headstone states that he was 18. He may have been younger. He joined the army in November 1916 when he was 17. Perhaps this is the reason he spent all of 1917 and the first half of 1918 in Australia: he was too young for overseas service. He did eventually go to the Western Front where he joined the 19th Battalion (AIF) in July 1918. He was killed in action 19 days later.

What must it have been like for William’s parents to have learnt of his death: the loss of expectation they would have felt, the pain of having a child predecease them, the immense sadness of not being there with him as he died? And, yet, when they came to choose the personal inscription for his headstone they chose something that spoke of hope and life rather than hopelessness and death.

For that is how Christians respond to death: grief, yes, but hope built on the certainty of Jesus’ death and resurrection that transcends the grief and pain. And so, they chose REDEEMED WITH THE PRECIOUS BLOOD OF JESUS. For the grave and headstone was not the end, is never the end, for those who have been redeemed by Jesus.

And note the second part of the inscription: IS IT WELL WITH THEE? This could be a question directed at William himself or a more general question directed at the reader. Most people I spoke to who have read his inscription have opted for the latter reading: Is this how it is for you? That is what it is asking.

William’s epitaph speaks of the assurance of those who have trusted themselves to the Lord Jesus. And yet it does more because it challenges all who read to consider where they stand with regard to the Lord Jesus. A thoughtfully chosen epitaph can certainly engage and challenge the reader. William’s thoroughly Christian inscription certainly does that for me.

The Rev Dr Colin R. Bale is the vice principal and academic dean of Moore College as well as head of the department of Church History.