In a previous blog I mentioned our local newspaper, and recounted “the good old days” when our small town had three competing daily papers. I subsequently made a number of disparaging remarks about our one remaining paper which was purchased some time ago by Gannett. Nevertheless, my day usually begins with a cup of coffee and a perusal of the Times Recorder. It doesn’t take long. The front page usually has some local human-interest story which I don’t find very interesting so I usually proceed to page 2 and the obituaries which is the real reason I continue to subscribe to the thing.
WHY THIS SUBJECT?
Barb insists that it is absolutely morbid that I choose obituaries as the subject of this blog, but I feel it is both important and timely. Long before he had reached my present age, my Father wrote his and my Mother’s obituaries. He was always one who liked to be in control and I am sure he did not have much faith in anyone getting it right. Regardless of his motivation, it turned out to be a blessing for we survivors.
As you may have surmised motivation for my daily obituary searches has much to do with the fact that at my age I now see more familiar names on page 2 than I have in the past. Indeed, my contemporaries are dying at an alarming rate. I have no plans to write my obituary as we have an experienced obituary writer in the family. Before leaving for less green but more lucrative pastures in the big city, Maggie was in charge of obituaries for the TR (don’t you hate acronyms?). She tells me it is standard practice to assign that job to cub reporters, which says much about journalistic priorities.
Sadly, most obituaries are boring recitations which are little more than death notices which say little more than when and where he or she was born and died along with a brief chronicle of their life with a focus on their occupation. This is followed by a list of family members living and dead, and information about funeral arrangements. It does appear to me that those traditions are gradually being swept away as I see many instances in which there is only a graveside service restricted to family members, but that’s another story. For many families cost may be a factor in the length of obituaries as they usually charge per line of type. In larger cities it is much more expensive. For example, the New York Times charges $263 for the first 4 lines and $52 for each subsequent line. Each line contains only 28 characters and is printed in very small (7 point type).
In spite of the brevity of the average obituary in our paper there are some which give hints as to the nature of the subject’s life. Just this morning I read the obit of a 96 year old woman and found the loving portrait inspiring. She was said to have had a “long well-lived life.” She was described as a “feisty woman who lived life to the fullest and enjoyed the thrill of playing slot machines.” She also enjoyed her grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. She had worked in a factory all her adult life and attended church which was “just up the road from where she was born.” Most important was the statement “She was a loving woman who will be missed by family and friends throughout Morgan and Perry counties.” In my opinion, to be missed allows one’s life to continue in others’ thoughts; consequently no one wants to be forgotten.
Throughout history it has been important to immortalize our heroes with statues and other icons so they will continue to inspire us, and not be forgotten. It is also not unusual for the living to build their own monuments. Likewise, it is common for people to prescribe in detail the hymns to be sung, the burial method and even the entire process of the funeral with the possible exception of the eulogy. This is done in spite of the realization that they will not be a witness to the festivities. In the old days one could easily identify the most affluent buried in the graveyard by the size of their gravestone. Now modern cemeteries are devoid of monuments expressly to be more egalitarian, but coincidently eliminating impediments to mowing the grass.
In spite of our best efforts, we will in all probability soon be forgotten. The odds of our being remembered for longer than a couple of generations is probably much less than winning the power-ball jackpot. Millions have gone before you and failing extinction of the species millions will follow. You will need to be very, very famous to stick out in such a crowd. Even a famous blogger is not likely to make the cut. Although your name will be recorded in various places you will have been long forgotten until someone encounters your name as they work on their genealogy, and they will wonder what it would have been like to-know you.
It is true that obituaries have a certain utilitarian value in that they not only announce the death but list those to whom you might want to send a sympathy card, provide the time and place of the funeral, etc., but I find little information which would help me to know the person. There have been some examples in which anecdotal information has provided me with an idea as to a person’s identity, and a feeling that I would like to have known them. One such case was a single statement in an otherwise generic obit of an elderly woman as follows: “Edna’s family gathered at her home for Sunday dinner at 1 o’clock every week for over 60 years and welcomed all guests with open arms. Edna will be remembered for her peach-pecan and pumpkin pies, noodles, and birthday cakes, her patience, kindness, and unwavering and unconditional love for others, and most of all, her heart of gold.” In the annals of motherhood, it is difficult to imagine anyone topping that record of nurturing. I felt as if I would like to have known Edna. Maybe I could even have wrangled an invitation to Sunday dinner.
My all-time favorite obituary was one which kept me laughing. It was written by a daughter who began with a quest for anyone interested in dinner plates. It turned out that her mother had been a collector of all kinds of different items, including dinner plates, and the daughter was overwhelmed. She went on to describe all her mother’s quirks in a most loving and tender but funny way. It was my all time favorite and I consider it a masterpiece. I tried to save it, but since we have a rule in this house to never lose anything unless it is important it has disappeared.
WHY THE IMPORTANCE
For those of us who will not have a bronze likeness in the courthouse square, our obituary will be the most lasting chronicle of our lives. It will probably be written or directed by someone who loved us and thus emphasize our better natures providing a template for living a full life. Obituaries remind us of our mortality which is not always a bad thing as such awareness can be a powerful motivator.
Obituaries have been with us since Roman times but as print media is replaced by the internet, obituaries are likely to follow suite. One such example is “The Blog of Death” written by Jade Walker who was formerly a chronicler of the deaths of the rich and famous in the New York Times. She was also hailed for producing a publication of the obits for all the victims of the nine eleven attacks. She describes her blog as: “…featuring the famous, infamous and interesting unknowns.” Undoubtedly, major newspapers will continue to publish obituaries deemed newsworthy. One often cited example is the Los Angeles Times preparation of Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary two years before her death presumably in order to be ready for the great event. Ironically, the person who wrote it died before it was published.
With the demise of local newspapers throughout the country, I assume that their archives containing millions of obituaries will be lost. There are organizations which profess to have access to nearly a century of published obituaries; however I am not sure how that is done, e.g., do they simply access newspaper archives? For most of us our obituary is all that remains of us to be remembered for longer than a few years.
SAVED BY THE CLOUD
As Jade Walker points out, the internet provides opportunity to include pictures, personal anecdotes, and experiences which could allow us to relate to lives that are gone. In an era when there is data available to unravel the human genome, keep track of who and where we are, who we talk to, and what we buy, it does not seem unreasonable to catalog obituaries. Perhaps the information could be managed by the Library of Congress, and the millions of wondrous stories which are now literally buried could be available for all to see. It could even contain the recipe for Edna’s peach-pecan pie