Since I recently mentioned sending the Sports section to the recycle bin as soon as I unfurl the newspaper, many of you are probably dying to know, if not Sports, then what? At the risk of sounding morbid, I admit that I go straight to the obituaries. I may glance at some front-page headlines to see whether our governor has lost his hair or gone hiking, but my first order of business is checking on those who have checked out since the previous day.
Yes, this interest may be a sign of advancing age, but the truth is that I’ve been reading obituaries for many years. Being a life-long Austinite, the death notices have included many who have played roles in my history, as classmate, co-worker, and friend or their relatives. What keeps me hooked, however, is reading about people I never knew – about their dreams, loves, passions, and accomplishments, along with their connection with this city and its institutions. So many times, I find myself thinking, “I wish I’d known this person.”
I am not alone as I have several colleagues who share in this interest. Nancy or Cynthia will alert me – and I, them – when one of us comes across a particularly noteworthy notice. We speculate as to what was not said, as well as what was. If the cause of death is unmentioned, we look to the mentioned charities for clues. (Cause of death is increasingly important given our place on the actuarial tables.) And we have reached a consensus that some people should think more seriously about their obit pictures during their lifetimes.
Some obituaries are like short stories that leave you wanting more. One woman had “amassed an impressive collection of cocktail napkins and wrapping paper.” Were they used or new? Who in the family would keep the collection? At the notice’s end it says “Mom, we promise we are wiping our feet before entering the house and using coasters.” Would they also be using her cocktail napkins?
And then there are some that tell you everything you need to know. Mr. Clark’s death notice says that he “who had tired of reading obituaries noting other’s courageous battles with this or that disease, wanted it known that he lost his battle as a result of an automobile accident.” It was also reported of Fred, “During his life he excelled at mediocrity.” Fred himself suggested that “in lieu of flowers, you buy a sizeable amount of alcohol and get rip roaring drunk at home with someone you love or hope to make love to.” Read all of this charming obituary at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/timesdispatch/obituary.aspx?n=frederic-arthur-clark-fred&pid=18382676
And then, there are some that leave you scratching your head: “She was born of [mother’s name] and [father’s name], a pair of restless school dropouts who accounted for a combined dozen marriages in their lifetimes.”
Most folks are pretty nonchalant about their obituaries. After all, they will be gone, so why should they care? Whoever is left will worry about that, they might reason. I know many people who don’t even care what music is played at their memorial (or celebration of life) service. (For the record, I want Sinatra’s “Fly Me to Moon.”) But, when someone in the future wants to dig us up, metaphorically of course, that obituary may be the only retrievable piece of information. That assumes, of course, that newspapers don’t also die.
But, in the more short-term, I’d like friends, acquaintances, and non-friends alike to read about me when I reach the end of the trail and think, “I’m glad I knew this person,” or “I would have liked to know this person.” My co-obituary aficionados agree and worry about leaving obituaries for family members to do. Cynthia, still in her prime, told me the other day, “My husband is an engineer, and if left to him, it will be facts and numbers. No color, no life!” We agreed that she deserved more and that he should be instructed to turn over his draft to our review committee (Nancy and me if she goes first) and let us add some verve. Who wants dry prose following them around in eternity?
My friend Liz and I discussed this subject and in a moment of high spirits, we decided to write each other’s obituary. I got no further than the first sentence of hers, but it seemed a good beginning: “You may not have heard them, but on (date in far future), Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Bills passed on and the members of this world’s animal kingdom let out a collective howl of woe that told the heavens Lizzie was on her way.”
My sentence wasn’t in her obituary a few years later when she died unexpectedly. In fact, I had forgotten all about it, so great was the shock of her death at age 49. I don’t think her family would have used it anyway, since it was, perhaps, a bit dramatic. But, along with regretting that she didn’t have more time to do things with the animals (and some people) she loved, I regret not having a finished an obituary that she might have approved. I didn’t see the one she wrote for me, but I’m pretty sure it began with something like, “Jeffee’s adventures in hair color have officially ended.” She was always much more terse than I.
Truth is, it’s hard to think about death and crank out obituaries when the subject is still living life in full gear. That, of course, is why most of them end up being on the dry side. But just in case I don’t get around to mine, I’m putting in a request for something like “Jeffee was a nice person who, after her boys were grown and all the dishes were washed, picked up her passion for the written word – a passion that sustained her spirit, soothed her soul, and brought pleasure to others for the rest of her years.”