I have a fascination with obituaries. No, this isn’t a Halloween post. I go to newspapers online and read them regularly. Having grown up in the area, I recognize old family names and sometimes even the person. Sadly sometimes this has been the only way I’ve learned of the death of someone I knew.
Here are the things that fascinate me though.
The names. Obituaries run the whole gamut from plain John Doe to multi-hyphenated, multi-cultural, multi-syllable names. I’ll see a beautiful, unique name for a woman who died in her late 90s and wonder what the story was, how she got such an unusual name for the time period of her birth, what her parents were thinking, how much she was teased or envied in school. And what she thought. Did she wish for a change, was she proud or embarrassed?
The photos. Sometimes I wonder which family member was allowed to pick the obituary photo out. Some make me imagine the result was a huge knock-down all-out fight in the funeral home. Photos of an elderly person who died are rarely current, but most often of their early days. Why? Was someone ashamed of wrinkles? Photos of elderly people looking every inch their age, and every inch proud of it. The kind of old person you’d want to hang out with. Photos of young people that are heartbreaking – those hopeful expressions looking out on a whole life ahead of them.
The wording. A while back there was an obituary flying around social media that had been written by an elderly man before he died. Wish I could find that again as it was honest and hilarious. Some obituaries are stilted as if from a funeral home template. Someone just filled in the blanks. Some make the person sound so wonderful, kind, and perfect, that you want to gag. I’m sure, when reading those, that either the family member was severely biased or seriously hiding some deep dark secret. A secret I now want to know.
And finally, my greatest source of frustration: the cause of death. I see this person’s photo, I read their name, I read the testimony. I now feel connected in a small way. But I have no idea how they died. The story is incomplete. When the person is elderly you can assume simply old age. Although I remember the shock reading the obituary of a 89-year-old woman’s death from base jumping. I’m sure the family listed that cause of death out of pride. And rightly so.
When the piece, though, says ‘died unexpectedly’ I’m lost. Sometimes the obituary will say that in lieu of gifts donations can be made to a cancer society, or a mental health agency, and I have the clue I need to fill in that lost feeling. But it’s like reading a story with no ending. And then I find myself wondering, what’s the big secret? Was the person killed in an act of violence? An act of stupidity? An act of futility? I start imagining scenarios that might match the name, age, and photo. Heart attacks, fishing accidents, drug deals gone wrong, a sad, long illness, and so on.
And I don’t want something basic, like ‘died of a sudden heart attack’. I want something like ‘Died of a heart attack while climbing Mt. Ranier’. When there are no details I imagine the cause being ‘Died of a heart attack while eating a king size candy bar sitting in front of the TV.’ An obvious reason not to post the cause for the whole world to see.
I think what the fascination boils down to is reading tiny short stories. Little snippets of someone’s life. I end up with a brief moment of connection, empathy, loss for having never known the person, and loss that the stranger is now gone from the world.
And I end up with no end.