In writing my obit, I reflected on the thousands of family-written paid notices that I've read over the years, vowing not to make some of the same mistakes. Yes, I read the obituary pages every day. It's an essential part of my newspaper routine. I'll almost never even open the sports page, but I'll always read at least one obit. I so enjoy hearing about life lived well, of a person's travels, accomplishments, and surprising choices. I look forward to those brief stories that add some meat upon the bones of "born here" and "died there." I relish the quotes and quips that suggest the humor or sparkle or ornery nature of a person who lived in some coherent manner. And I read with particular fondness the obits of men and women who served in the Second World War. It's an oft-quoted number that 1,000 veterans of that global conflict die every day. Sometimes these are folks who fought with distinction alongside noted generals. But I'm just as happy to hear about the guy who worked in the motor pool of some forgotten Pacific island or the gal who rigged parachutes somewhere in England. Generally, these obits mention WWII service and then jump to a thirty-year career that, from the length of the notice, seems to pass in seconds. I slow down in these columns, and sometimes I read them twice.
Reading family-written obituaries, and rewriting my own, I think about the things that drive me nuts about this form of epideictic prose, the practices and formulas that make for a lousy life story. At the top of my obit-rant list is the baffling choice to document every second cousin and brother-in-law in an unreadable paragraph of family names. Yes, a person's legacy might be found in the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. If that's the case, let's hear those numbers: 4 children, 12 grandchildren, and so on. But an entire paragraph that lists the names (and, in the most annoying instances, their current cities of residence) of a person's progeny could better be spent offering vivid detail about the deceased's style of parenting. Tell a story that offers more insight into the quality of a person's ability to raise a family, something more than "goodness, she certainly was prolific." Beyond the dreaded name-list are the hoary obit clichés: people who die "surrounded by family," men who'd "give you the shirt off his back," women "beloved by all." Perhaps the worst of the bunch is the evaluation of a person's death. It's not enough to die of cancer. We must now consider whether a person dies "courageously" of the dread disease -- all the more reason to savor the bitter humor of The Onion's story, Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer (warning: adult language). The most likely sin to be committed by my obit: reading like a resume. I'll try to excise some of that posturing before that document is put to use, but I'm making no promises.
For quite a while I've thought about writing this post, fearing that my breezy analysis of this form or my list of obit clichés would bring pain to someone still raw from their own grief. And I certainly don't intend to belittle the occasion. Still, I think it important to consider with some critical detachment the nature of the obituary, particularly ones written in the United States that suffer from a pronounced atrophy of form and style. I suppose my inspiration to finally write this note came upon finishing Marilyn Johnson's book, The Dead Beat, a humorous and thoughtful analysis of the craft of obituary-writing. Filled with moving history and sparkling anecdotes, her book offers a solid description of why we write and read these things:
[O]bituaries, as anyone who reads or writes obituaries will tell you, are really not about death. They're occasioned by death, and they almost always wrap up with a list of those separated from the beloved by death, but they are full of life. The good ones are as intoxicating as a lung full of snowy air, as clarifying as the glass the ophthalmologist drops before your eyes, that brings the world into sudden sharp focus. The great obits aren't the products of jackknifed tractor-trailers and hurricanes -- the obits are released by such disasters. (pp. 195-196)That, more than anything, is why I wrote my own obituary, not as an excuse to dwell upon death but rather to reflect on life, my own in particular. As of yet, I haven't filled my few allotted paragraphs with sufficient love or sacrifice or courage or adventure. I've traced out some paths and moved in a few general directions, but the trajectory of my life still stretches onward, somewhere out there. In this way, the obituary, both for the dead and the living, remains a map more than a requiem. A great obit points the way to how I'd like to be.