Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Just keep breathing!

I wish I could tell you that my daily reading of the obituaries was a recent addiction - you know, one of those things people do as they get older to see if any one they know has died. Or, failing that excuse, I wish I could tell you that I only began reading obituaries when I was fundraising for hospice in the 80s. It was important - from a fundraiser's point of view - to know which of our deceased patients had "Hospice" named as the beneficiary of any donations.

But the truth, the simple fact, is that I have read obituaries since about the time I started reading anything other than the comics and Ann Landers.

My name is Cheryle and I'm an obituary junkie.

Part of it, I'm certain, is due to my Southern heritage. Southerners are always keen to discuss who has died recently, what s/he died of, who has been seen paying too many condolence calls on the widow(er), and whether or not the family has been left financially solvent (in the case of the man's death) or who will take care of those poor, dear little children (if it's the mother who has died).

Of course if someone has died in the natural course of things, say, at age 93 after having survived at least one spouse and perhaps a child or two, there are other things that can be discussed. Such as whether or not the recently deceased has "just been waiting to die" ever since "George (or Mabel) passed on in 19 and 82." Or whether the house will sell for what it's worth since the recently deceased has just let it go to the dogs for the past 10 years. "Poor thing could hardly see anymore, so I reckon that's to be expected. Seems like those young'uns could've helped out some!"

But the real reason I read the obituaries is twofold: The first is so Jim or I can comment on the (perceived) fact that everyone who died was "so young," or that "at least it was all old people" (anyone older than we are).

The second reason, Dear Reader, is because I find so many obituaries are actually enthralling biographies of people whom it is now too late to meet! For example, today there was a death announcement for a particularly fascinating man. He just barely met the criteria for age, being only 9 months older than Jim, but he did so many things in his life! And he was a philosopher, besides. Oh, how I would have loved to have long conversations with him! And now the opportunity is forever lost.

Perhaps we should find a way to publish pre-obituaries, a daily listing of people in our communities - not the Rich and Famous, but just the ordinary Joes and Janes who populate our cities and towns. People from whom we could learn and with whom we could exchange ideas. People to whom we could pose questions and discuss answers. People whose lives could, perhaps, enlarge our own lives.

Or maybe we could just all find an older relative or friend whose storehouse of knowledge and wisdom could guide us as we muddle our way through this life. There are so many questions I still have for my mother and for my grandfather; questions that will remain unanswered; questions that I didn't know enough to ask when the opportunity was there.

And that may be the greatest loss we experience as we age. There are so many great gifts to being older - the blessings of seeing our children make their way, the advent of grandchildren - but surely there are losses. I think I will begin to look for ways to engage my family and friends in conversations beyond the mundane. Less of "How is the job going?" and more of "What do you think?"

I'll bet there are some interesting stories just waiting to be heard!


  1. I always appreciate obituaries that list cause of death -- as though I will be able to avoid it somehow!

    Over the years I have toyed with the idea of writing a column about one community person per week. Not someone in the public eye but just "every day" people who have stories to tell. Maybe rather than obituaries we should have biography list/section in the paper so we can check on the living as well as the dead.

    How nice it would be to celebrate people's lives while they are still with us.

  2. I've been reading obits for years. Same thoughts and fears you expressed so eloquently. The long ones with massive accomplishments make me feel so small and insignificant. And the short ones make me feel sad to think I may end up to be a one-liner when I join their ranks. Then again, there probably won't be any newspapers left to publish obits anyway. Maybe ours will just show up as pop-ups on YaHoo and Google?