Why I Read Obituaries

Like so many other things that are quickly becoming outdated, obituaries are a useful form of communication that is lacking a user base.

Apr 23, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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The oft-overlooked obits page.

I didn’t even mean to start reading the obituary section of the newspaper. In the San Francisco Chronicle, it happens to be on the backside of travel or arts or something else I zero in on. I happened to flip over the page, and boom, I was hooked. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

As usual, I didn’t realize I was doing something slightly odd until someone else told me. After I read part of one aloud to him, my partner Andreas was sort of put off. “What are you reading?” he asked with a bit of discomfort. Usually, he’s all about me reading stuff aloud to him.

Apparently, reading the obituaries isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time.

I’m pretty sure Andreas thinks I’m ridiculously morbid, which isn’t totally unfair. I did recently convince him to watch “The Bridge,” the documentary about people who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate. Real barrel of laughs over here, aren’t I?

I’ve always been relatively comfortable with death, and I guess because I’m a bit of a depressive gal, talking about the inevitable doesn’t spook me. That said, the older I get, the more I do genuinely wonder what happens after we die.

I worry about it, mostly because I worry about my loved ones dying prematurely. (Is this a thing among folks who lost loved ones at a young age? I lost two close family members before I turned 18, and a friend whose sister died when they were preteens shares my theory.)

Lately, I’ve also been thinking about loss a bit more because one of my grandmas isn’t doing very well. I don’t think that she’s dying, nor do I think proclaiming that here in this way would be a particularly compassionate move. It might be universal, this business of losing our grandparents, but it isn’t something I talk about flippantly.

I’m seized by terror when I think about losing any of my three remaining elders. They’re my posse, my guiding force in trying to live some decidedly old-school values in a very rapidly advancing age.

So, I started reading the obits because I want to know how others publicly describe loss. The death notices I’ve been reading are weirdly mismatched in tone and style. Some abruptly begin with no name, simply, “Died after extended illness.” Others start with the story of a person’s early life, their happy marriage or fulfilling work, and don’t even mention any illness or cause of death.

Sometimes you can guess who wrote them; often, it’s a bit of a mystery. It only recently occurred to me that people might write their own, much like creating a will or estate, maybe even years in advance of any rapid aging. 

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The books section is (sometimes) less morbid.

Take this snippet that I read this morning over my breakfast sandwich: 

"At work, Gale met Jim, and their friendship grew into a romance that lasted 33 years...Two years after they were married, Gale was diagnosed with primary-progressive MS. Gale and Jim decided that her illness should inspire them to live life to the fullest each day. They traveled often..."

Not only am I always wowed by people who stay together for decades -- seriously aspirational commitment, am I right? -- but obituaries also always offer inspiring big-picture perspective. Would a multiple sclerosis diagnosis devastation some people? Sure. Hell, maybe Gale and Jim were initially devastated. But long-term, they were able to make the most of their life together.

According to the write-up, Gale was only 56 when she died. It still sounds like she had a terrific life full of love and happiness. (Her obit also included two photos, one from her early years and one from mid-life. I thought that was such a nice touch.)

Several others in the morning paper were for folks who had been born in 1918 and 1919, the latter one of my own gram's birth years. Their stories were different, of course, but equally compelling. Not to romanticize hardship, but several generations ago, things were so vastly different.

"Born in Lucca, Italy, Elsa was the driving force behind her family coming to America after WWII."

As much as I appreciate it, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that sort of like a belated wedding toast, loved ones pen obituaries to be shared with a particular paper’s audience. Much like a funeral, it’s a way to share something with your local community -- though we all know (and some of us mourn the reality) that newspapers are increasingly not seen as the way to broadcast such information.

In this case, I guess people hope that others will read about their lost loved ones and celebrate a life well lived. I certainly get that sentiment from the ones I read. I even feel strangely hopeful that maybe my life will be that good on paper once it’s all said and done.

I admit that the logistics confuse me. I know how to pitch a newspaper editor, but I wouldn’t have the first clue about writing and submitting an obituary. Is it like a classified? Do they just take any obituary at all? What are the guidelines, the deadlines? Does everyone know this stuff but me? Is this just part of getting older that I’ll eventually figure out?

As with so many burning questions I often have, I feel like this isn’t something I can ask people about. I can’t just say, “So, did you write your wife’s obituary?” I might -- and that’s a big might -- ask my grandpa down the line sometime, long after my Gram is gone, how he handled a public notice of her passing.

If there’s one thing he’s good at (and in fact there are many), it’s being blunt and forthright about how he manages the minutiae of life. Actual words and phrases used in our last phone conversation include: stool softener, panties, diaper, hairdresser, tipping, blouses, slacks. You get the idea.

Obituaries in the digital age are a funny thing, especially since they’re often written about people without much Internet presence. My grandpa Shoot’s obituary is pretty much the only place he exists online.

It’s not only a comfort to know there’s this little wisp of his identity floating around; it’s handy when I have to explain to yet another acquaintance, “Actually, yeah, this IS my real name. Check it.” And then I supply the link to my lineage.

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Grandpa Shoot's obituary from the real printed newspaper. Does everyone keep stuff like this?

Ironically, as I was writing this week, I came across my grandpa Shoot’s tangible newspaper obit in an old file folder of papers I wanted to keep. The newsprint is yellowing, torn at the top, and was mixed in with a tax return from several years ago. I moved it to its own plastic protective folder along with the booklets from his funeral and a later memorial service honoring all deceased ministers of the church to which he belonged. I’d gone with my Gram, yet another public way to grieve.

I don’t know what it means to keep documents of loss, but there’s certainly no way I’m getting rid of them.

Like so many other things that are quickly becoming outdated, obituaries strike me as one more example of a useful form of communication that is perfectly functional but lacking a user base, an audience. But as long as editors keep printing them, I’ll keep reading them.