The obituary page

September 10, 2010

I used to think my grandfather had a strange affliction. He not only
read the obituaries, but he kept a log of the deaths of relatives,
friends and people he knew. If there were ever any questions about who
died when, he’d retrieve his notebook and give us the facts.

My
mother also kept a log for a while, though I'm not sure she still does.
I do know she reads and clips newspaper obituaries. She has stacks of
them on her desk, mixed together with financial papers that my sister
and brother-in-law help her keep straight.

This affliction is
apparently hereditary. Somewhere on the path toward “maturity,” I too
started noticing and reading the obituaries. I’m as apt to read
obituaries about people I don’t know as those I do know. I’m amused
when people’s accomplishments are trumpeted while their feet of clay
are left unexposed. Obituaries stand as monuments to the persons whose
lives they recount, a testament to the fact their lives really mattered.

When
I asked my friends on Facebook whether they read obituaries, one pastor
in Kansas said it’s in the job description for small-town pastors.
Another said he likes to read obituaries in small towns while traveling
and imagine the lives of people who live there. Another reported that
her grandmother liked to say that she’d start her day reading the
obits, and if she didn’t find her name there she’d get on with her day.
She lived to 102. Does reading obituaries prolong life?

One
friend reported that her brother died unexpectedly this past February
at age 37. She and her family were very thankful for all the people who
showed up at the wake because they had seen his obituary. Now she reads
them herself.

I read obituaries for reasons similar to why I
like memoirs and biographies. I’m intrigued by the way other people
have lived their lives, the roads they’ve taken, the roads rejected.

I
also read obituaries to remind me of my own mortality. Sometimes I even
imagine what it will be like for others to read my obituary. That’s not
being morbid; it’s being realistic about the end of our days. As St.
Benedict put it, “Remember every day, you will die.”

Comments

Sally Melcher said...

Sally Melcher said...

When I get guff about reading obits, I say "Hey, it's biography!" A couple of weeks ago I missed a friend's father's obituary, felt bad that I didn't know....I like your St Benedict quote

retired rick said... I

retired rick said...

I read them looking for people I might have known. I also read them thinking that there would be a great beginning place for novelist. Read that obit and see what kind of story you could imagine for that person. I am told that Doris Betts at Chapel Hill was told that you become a great writer when you can make up excuses for others as good as you make them up for yourself. I think you could become a great writer by thinking up stories about the people in the obits.