One of my routine activities is reading the daily obituaries published in the local paper. My enjoyment of these columns has nothing to do with a fascination with death; to the contrary, it comes from the same part of me that enjoys good biography—an interest in the lives of people. The columns in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, following a few details regarding birth and death dates, commonly move on to the “life” details. According to Bruce Weber, who writes obituaries for The New York Times, that is the practice of his publication as well. Their articles “are about lives that have been lived, not deaths that have occurred.” Clearly, the lives I am reading about may be less prominent than those in Weber’s stories, but to me they are even more interesting since they are more likely to be about non-celebrities to whom I can relate for a variety of reasons.
In his famous meditation on death, “Thanatopsis,” William Cullen Bryant tells us, “All that breathe/Will share thy destiny.” In no place is that made more poignant than in the local newspaper. This is where the doctor, the lawyer, the machinist, the nurse, the teacher, the factory worker, the student are on equal footing. The homemaker with a high school education is remembered for the love she expressed through her “fluffy biscuits and chocolate cake” as well as is the lawyer and businessman who is celebrated for his prominent career that began after his completion of various degrees from exclusive institutions of higher learning.
Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world–the wise, the good,
Fair forms and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulcher.
— “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant
Each day my reading becomes an investigation. Will I recognize the names of any of those listed, such as that of Dr. Charles Billiard, my student teaching supervisor of forty-five years ago? Will I be familiar with a survivor’s name, often one of my high school classmates, whose elderly parent has passed? Will I see the name of a high school classmate such as that of Sue Harris, who married another classmate? Will I see the name of yet another elderly man like my dad, one of a dying breed of military heroes who served his country during World War II or the Korean War?
Reading the columns also suggests much to me about their authors and their regard for their subjects. Some have said that perhaps the composers see their subjects through rose-colored glasses. I would respond that in the remembrance of a loved one, this is perhaps appropriate. Does this mean these people never saw anything negative about their subjects? Probably not. But this is the time to express good memories and the time to share them with others. A friend tells the story of the comfort she felt as she composed her husband’s obituary as she kept watch during the final days of his long illness. As I wrote both my parents’ obituaries several years back, I realized an opportunity to achieve some level of catharsis. Were they both perfect? Was my relationship with either of them always ideal? Of course not. But what mattered at that point was the good they had done and my ability to focus on that. The obituary is the occasion when it is appropriate only to follow the instruction some of our mothers gave us as children: If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all. Or referring specifically to the deceased, “Speak no ill of the dead,” a saying that in various forms can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.
I have several friends who share my interest in reading obituaries. It is not uncommon for us to begin conversations with something like “Did you see the obituary for . . . .?” Are there others in our readership who appreciate these carefully edited brief biographies as much as we do?
I like reading obits, too. Great sources for inspiration – how to live, how to love. Some are so resonant that I want to send condolences, even when I don’t know the deceased.
Thanks for writing this.
Glad you appreciated it, Eve. It is interesting to consider why some touch me more than others. I especially like the ones where the focus is totally on the deceased and not on the survivors, even when they might be famous people.
I really enjoyed your column, and I was struck by how after 9/11 the NY Times made sure all victims were recognized in the exact same format, with the same amount of coverage, no matter the position the person held or relative status. It was deeply moving to have a window into those many lives cut short.
My habit of reading obituaries provided a poignant reminder of 9/11 recently when I read the column about a gentleman with whose name I was familiar from my teaching days and remembered that he was the father of one of the Twin Towers victims. It’s amazing sometimes how reading about the lives of others stirs memories and opens windows for me. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.