My life as a Guest Book screener

I’ve been screening Guest Book entries at for nearly five years. Technically, it’s a “reading” job. Though sometimes it feels more like being an invisible referee—making sure everyone plays by the rules (no copyrighted works, please) and remembers to, simply put, be nice. And probably similar to actual referees, no two days at the job are alike.

On a good day, screening Guest Book entries can remind me of all that is right in the world. Sounds weird, perhaps, of a job where you “have to” think about death each day—especially in such personal and private terms. Interestingly, though, many of the entries have very little to do with death per se. While certainly someone’s passing has prompted submitting them, often the posts themselves are about wonderful memories of times together. It’s the proverbial “celebration of life.” I feel quite lucky to read first-hand accounts of some funny, interesting and amazing life events. They may not be every entry, but they are in there. And it feels a bit like hitting the jackpot when a really good one comes my way.

The “good ones” do not necessarily boast of extraordinary accomplishments, but rather remind me of how to be a better person, in small everyday ways. I once screened an entry submitted by a nephew to his uncle’s Guest Book. The nephew recalled that when he was a young man and graduated college, he turned down several good job offers. He opted to take some time and drive across country on a road trip instead. Everyone in his life was deeply disappointed in him at the time, and told him so. This particular uncle, however, did not say a word. He simply went out into the driveway, and taught the nephew how to change a flat tire.

I’m not sure why I remember this one. Or continue to talk about it to this day. I suppose I want to remember to be a little bit like that nephew—willing to follow my own path at times no matter what others say. Or remember to be a little bit more like that uncle—able to refrain from judgment and offer something useful in the moment. I remember stories like these. And on good days, they come my way.

But they are not all good days. And despite the fair amount of inspirational stories of lives well-lived, I also read about lives that didn’t go as planned, ended abruptly or never had a chance to really begin. This job has given me an awareness of the unbelievable amount of tragedy and random violence that takes place. I guess you could say the bad days remind me of all that is wrong in the world.

I’m not sure why the tragedies are so hard to forget. I certainly don’t talk about them much. Usually, I check in with my supervisor to inquire “do you know about this yet?” And all he says back is “Yes.” And then we both sit in silence for a while. Maybe taking it all in. Maybe grieving. Maybe praying. Who knows? All I know is there are plenty of situations where nothing can really be said. And I go home and hug my kids a little tighter that night.

So, it can be heavy work, for sure—and there’s always another entry, or two, or five, or five hundred waiting to be read which doesn’t make it feel any lighter. But like any job, the sense of community can make it bearable. It feels meaningful to be a part of something that is “of service” to others. And we often work as a team and collaborate in order to determine the fate of particularly challenging entries. There is a real sense of accomplishment knowing a good effort was put forth to extend as much benefit-of-the-doubt as possible.

And, a big sense of community comes from the “regulars.” There are a handful of people who consistently submit entries into the Guest Book of their deceased loved ones. It’s inspiring to witness that kind of love and undying devotion. And over time, these folks come to feel like acquaintances.

There is a Guest Book for a thirteen year old boy who died suddenly eight years ago. The family writes every day, which means I’ve screened many of their entries over the last five years. This summer, I screened his “happy 21st birthday” entry. I had tears screening that post. I, too, seemed to have a sense of just how long he’d been gone, and somehow shared the weight of his absence.

We don’t have any rules about not crying on the job.

Or against wishing there are birthdays in heaven.

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