Monday, February 21, 2011

Death Notices

Death Notices, 2011

I've always been a reader of the obituaries. I'm not obsessed with death. I rarely know any of the people being written about. I don’t come to these pages to mourn. Rather, I come to learn about life.

Obituaries are as good a history book as many I know. They are windows into the human condition of the last century and into the changing interpretations of what people thought were their best parts. They tell stories of everything from impoverished childhoods on the prairies to the lush life of the Gilded Age. They tell stories of quiet lives centered on family and lives of valiant service to community and country. You can learn about lives lived with courage, dignity and happiness. You can learn about lives lived in pain and loneliness. In between the lines of obituaries are hints at many secrets. You can learn about people whose absence will be felt by few and those who will be missed by many. You can learn about lives summarized in just a line or two and lives thought to be so worthy that family members purchase entire columns of the newspaper to chronicle the deceased, as if the obituary is the one last chance to settle past accounts.

By far my favorite part of the obits is the way people describe the manner of death. Obituaries are nothing if not a land of euphemisms. People only rarely just "die." More often they "pass away," as if their bed got pushed into another room. Albert W. "was welcomed into the arms of his Lord and savior, Jesus Christ." Tina I. "was enfolded in the love of family and friends." Barbara P. "made her transition into heaven." Sharon B. was "called home." Royal W. "exchanged time for eternity."

Only rarely do the deceased appear to have died without a fight, leading one to wonder whether those said to have been so sure of their heavenly future were really all that anxious to ascend to whatever afterlife they subscribe to. They "struggled," "battled," and "fought" against this condition and that. For some, the “earthly work was done.” For others, “their work among the living was cut short.” Obituaries display love and anger, triumph and defeat, pride and prejudice.

Whatever the course that got them there, though, the outcome is always the same, and the real treat of being an obituary reader is that each day brings a whole new crop of stories.


  1. I've written my own obit and left it among the thousands if emails I've sent. It may never be read by anyone else, but it's a good exercise in getting some perspective on my own life, and what I want to do with the rest if it.

  2. I've always loved reading the NY Times obits, but I admit they often make me feel like I haven't accomplished very much when I compare my life to some of the amazing lives they've lived.

  3. ps
    Joe's aunt "Jewell" held her own wake while she was still alive so she could make sure it measured up to what she'd have wanted! I smile every time I think of that.

  4. Love this, Chris. I've never been an "obit" reader but maybe I will be now. :)

  5. It almost never fails that when I read one that I wish I had known some fact that is in the obit. I wd have wanted to ask about it. Or, some common factor that I cd not have imagined. Myreen

  6. Oh, Chris, this is so much better than mine!