OK. Confession time: I read obituaries. Yes, I’ve heard the old joke about checking each morning to see if my name is listed as having kicked the bucket, gone to the Happy Hunting Ground, bought the farm, or at least planted daisies. (I wonder, Why daisies? Why not roses? Or corpse flowers?) But checking the kicked-the-bucket list really is not my reason for reading obituaries. Besides the fact that I will read almost anything in print, I just happen to like them!
Not everyone is comfortable reading about or discussing death, hence the euphemisms for it. Even the idea of being life-challenged is one we want not to mull for as long as possible. Her mother’s evading the subject led Roz Chast to write Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? I wonder what her mother, Elizabeth, would say if she could read that Roz likes “having my parents [their cremains] in my closet.” Would she want to talk about that? Whatever Elizabeth said, she would probably note that her attitude is far more common than Roz’s. (And why is the word “cremains” easier than the word “ashes”?)
Why, I have even written obituaries. In my grief, sitting quietly to recall the facts and fictions of a life lived and ended, finding words to convey statistics and stories, and then sharing them with relatives, friends, and strangers serves to complete the earthly relationship I enjoyed with someone I have lost.
In a way, that is what I appreciate when I read obituaries of strangers, too. I meet fascinating men, women, and children I would not meet otherwise.
They are their statistics: when they died, what age they reached, where they lived, whether or not they left children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren, and, my favorite but most often left out, how they died. (I advocate a law requiring revelation of cause of death, not simply to satisfy morbid curiosity but as information for our lives: Can we avoid that particular cause?)
And they are their stories: how long they were married, where they went to school, what their hobbies were, what their passions were, what their careers encompassed, whom they helped, whom they loved, whom they worshipped, what they appreciated of their lives. In my mother’s obituary, I mentioned the table around which our family had shared countless meals she had prepared and family discussions over which she had presided. When two friends from our church walked through the dining room to deliver covered dishes before her funeral, one whispered to the other, “That’s the table,” delivering the comment that most touched me as we laid her to rest.
Of course, we all know that we read a sanitized biography in an obituary. And that is a good thing. Who does not want to be remembered for accomplishments, successes, triumphs, and achievements? Who does not want to be remembered for love, contributions, and faith?
That sanitizing, interestingly enough, extends beyond cleansing the reputation of the deceased. It extends to cleansing the experience of death. Although countless obituaries bluntly state that the named person “died,” others downplay that fact at least a bit by recording that the deceased “passed away.” And some go much further to soften the blow of death. When a person does not “die,” he may “transition from labor to reward,” “enter into rest,” “depart this life,” or even “join six brothers and sisters in the Lord’s loving arms after a long life in which [he] loved and was much loved.”
Perhaps further attempting to reassure readers, numerous obituaries suggest that the departed is still alive even though he has “passed into eternal life,” “answered the Master’s call,” “gone to be with the Lord,” or “entered the Kingdom of Heaven.” The deceased may only have “departed from this earthly scene” (implying that he went to an unearthly scene), “changed her place of residence from this mortal earth to an eternal home in heaven,” or “heard the Master’s call and collected her wings to fly to her heavenly home” but still exist somewhere in spirit if not body.
Other notices apparently are intended to reassure survivors of the ease of going when they, too, must go, declaring that a friend “died peacefully, quietly, unexpectedly, suddenly,” or “surrounded by family” (which could be peaceful or not). Or that friends and loved ones will be reunited as “he departed this life to join his wife,” “she joined her life-long dancing partner,” or “he joined Booda to continue their journey.” Dying and death, then, may be welcomed, especially if we have treasured a friend with a nickname like Booda. Thus, we are comforted.
While conducting genealogical research, I have tried to find an ancestor who did not die! So far, my research and my AncestryDNA results have me thinking that my search for that is in vain, although I have not yet surrendered. I could be the first to refuse to “succumb.” But just in case I am not destined to live forever here on earth, I hope my obituary will match one I read recently that noticed the death of a woman of very advanced age (after all, I am about to be 70) who “went on her merry way.” How’s that for ticking off the kicked-the-bucket list?