On Obituaries

Crammed into one space, a life, or more exactly, a faint shadow of a life. A black on white poltergeist of the page. Stuck between the war plans for Iraq and the department store sale ads, they are the obituaries. A service, an acknowledgement to the public general of someone's existence, an epitaph of vague detail and a minute family tree.

Each time I read them, or even glance at them, they pique my interest. All of these people have shuffled off, and I would not even have known unless the paper said so; if I were not reading the paper, I would not have known they'd lived at all.

They might be people that I passed in the mall, saw limping down the street, running in the playground, or someone that pulled out in front us at an intersection to squealing breaks and my father's cursing. They might have been anyone. They are everyone eventually.

And their (our) lives are ciphered down into a few inches of newsprint; their lives of feelings, dreams, hopes, pains and smiles all slurred in the ink of a small font.

This is nothing new, but it is still a downer. Not just a downer because the newspaper reminds us of the obscene ending that is inescapably coupled with our humanity, but because our humanity can be reduced to such an obscene space.

Lately the obituary has been expanded for some. The New York Times has dedicated three, even four paragraphs to a personal epitaph about those who died because of the September 11 attacks. These Portraits of Grief, as the Times calls them, are an attempt to extend that epilogue we have always had as one generation cedes itself to the younger. But, as others have pointed out, what the Times' portraits do is show how bad our paintings of the dead have been all along.

The effort is there, the grief is there, but a paltry sort of aurora hangs over all of them. With titles like "Loved To Find Good Bargains," all I can think of is, "Is this it?" Will my life be reduced so readily into one aspect of who I am? Will my friends remember how good of a friend I am, or will they recall my affinity for Coca-Cola, my persistent Seinfeld-watching, or my dislike of basketball, post-Michael Jordan? What will my obituary read? Will my words be rethought, my actions in life assessed, or will my superficial habits be embellished? Or worse, will all be forgotten?

And, even if my posthumous portrait is of what a good friend I was, is that enough? Is my life worth nothing more than a paragraph about me being there to console such-and-such and what organizations I belonged to?

That is all very egocentric, but it goes for us all. How will we be put down, what will our sliver of slurred ink read?

These are the immediate thoughts that an obituary, of whatever name you call it, provides, and they are scary. The hope of even the least ambitious of people is that they will leave some dent in the processional trudgings of humanity, that they will be somehow remembered. So being reduced, boiled down, siphoned off into less than 100 words is a fear we all know.

But you have to think past yourself, I've just begun to realize.

The writer of whatever remembers you -- whether it be a phrase on a tombstone, a paragraph for the obituary, a page for the eulogy, or a biography -- is living too. Their lives are just as yours. They will die as you died, in the footsteps of the dead that were quick. Must we spend our life living in the shadow of death, but should we be casting it off, or fighting the worrisome with the fruitful?

And, least philosophical, the obituary isn't for you. It is for them. That is a thought hard to overcome (How can you imagine the world without yourself?). The worry that they might say something wrong, so not you, and then that will be how the public general will recall you the next morning over eggs -- as a person headlined as having a "Love-Hate Relationship With Basketball." That worry is frivolous, because you cannot be there to suffer its wrongs, if they are indeed wrongs.

As much as we can anguish over the slot that we fill in life, the small, small slot amongst billions of others, we have to know that our slot is not another straw in a haystack, but another block in a Jenga game that stretches beyond, and above and below what the eye can see.

As our culture sees death on television, as hijackers, kidnappers, bombers, tyrants, polluters, disease and age take away loved ones and unknowns alike from us, we have to find the perspective. We have to appreciate the lives we knew and honor those we didn't and learn from both to build ourselves. Dwelling in the death that is coined in every birth isn't going to improve the road that lies ahead, but learning from it may.

The short phrases, the long-winded biographies, both present us with the same thing: an inadequate portrait of the infinite (think "It's A Wonderful Life") gain and loss that is life.

Each death is by no means a victory, but neither is it a complete loss. The cynicism of "Is this it?" and "Is there no more?" can overtake us, it can cloud every obituary page filled by our neighbors and the nightmares of our own, but it shouldn't tear us down or perturb us into abandoning our mortal mission (improving what was left to us, to leave behind better) because of hopelessness.

The cynicism always, though variably, lingers, for it is hard for us not to pity someone who has spent their whole life focusing upon one thing, like cooking hamburgers, singing songs or looking for genes in DNA.

With such cynicism comes equal solace. Solace that that cook, that clerk, that pop star, that holed-up scientist, that encyclopedia salesmen all have something beyond the superficiality we are always presented with. They might be great conversationalists, enlightening their neighbors; they might be great parents, raising the next generation of society-builders; and, they are themselves society-builders--everyone from the burger flipper to the president is designed to keep improving our society and to keep us all, hopefully, living contentedly as we choose. Beyond what we see of their lives, they are what others know and what they themselves intend to be.

Obituaries tell some of us the only story we will hear, but never are they full stories. To read, even plan for, an obituary we must know that they are not to be taken as the end of someone's life, but as the beginning of their accomplishments.


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