The traditional obituary is an exercise in curtness. It is an art form
nasty, brutish, and short, taking the scrambled up, complicated thing
that is a human life and smashing it into a tidy, coherent narrative.
Take, for example, the 1897 obituary of Margie Zellner in the
Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call:
Margie, the adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Rupp. She died of
typhoid fever. She was ill over a week. Daughter of James F. ZELLNER
and Daniella ZELLNER and at the death of her Mother, which occurred
when the deceased was a babe, she was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Rupp.
Burial at West End Cemetery, Allentown, Pa. On Friday, January 8, 1897.
She was 12 years, 11 months and 24 days of age. She lived with the
Rupps at 524 Walnut Street.
And that’s the story of Margie. She was born, she was adopted, she
got typhoid, she lived on Walnut Street, she died, the end. No mention
of what kind of games she liked to play, if she wore ribbons in her
hair, if anyone was sad that she was gone. Her obituary serves as
witness. It was written, and therefore she existed.
In a letter penned to the grieving Elizabeth Hubbart, his brother John’s stepdaughter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “A man is not completely born until he is dead.” He was trying to make her feel better about the death of her stepfather by saying that, as a soul now freed from his body, he was just getting started. What Elizabeth thought of as a life completed, Franklin portrayed as a mere rehearsal for the “real life” that is immortality. God gives bodies to all of us wandering souls for a little while, to experience pleasure, learn some tricks. Eventually, these bodies become painful or sad or just too gross to maintain, and are shuffled off while we get back to the business of being eternal. For Franklin, then, life is never done.
I can see how this sentiment might be comforting to a believer, but for those of us living on the other side of faith, the question of what constitutes a completed life is still an open one. Aristotle thought of life as a sum of its total actions that couldn’t be judged until those actions came to an end. This might be reassuring to those hovering about the frustrated middle of their lives, harshly judging their progress. Not to worry, says Aristotle — it ain’t over till it’s over. And it isn’t really over until you’ve been judged by other people at a point when you can no longer prepare a defense, be reformed, pay restitution, be rehabilitated. Judgment completes life.
A classic obituary like Margie’s above is a great example of this Aristotelian view. In essence, you’re not really dead unless you’ve been the subject of an obituary. It doesn’t have to be fancy — a eulogy written by your mom, a notice in the paper, a headstone with dates that say “he was born, he lived, and then he died.” These will all do. Without an obituary, it’s almost as if you never existed.
The obituary seems to be experiencing a renaissance. In her 2006 book The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson reveals a worldwide ring of rabid obituary enthusiasts—members of the Church of Obituaries, she calls them. They flip past the Sports and Business sections eager to read the day’s death roll. They “surf the dead beat” poring over blogs and newspapers searching for fascinating facts about Antoinette K-Doe, who turned a nightclub into a public shrine to her husband, or the guy who invented sea monkeys. Obituaries aren’t dirty little secrets as much as they used to be, lurking in hidden corners and ready to terrify those who cross their path. They are public, normal, interesting, fun. There’s howtowriteanobituary.com which involves everyday people in the writing process, and patrickswayzeobituary.com, a forum writing the demise of the movie star even as he lives. There’s even a glossy online magazine with the snappy name Obit.
But the real change is with the obituary writers. Once shamed to the backs of periodicals to deliver dour, Margie Zellner-style obituaries, many are now part of this new movement to “out” death by making it more accessible and “natural.” They are reconsidering the obituary not as the final judgment, but as a way death can be presented as a sum total of its stories. Everyone has stories, everyone dies, and in writing about death, death and life become more of a circle. The obituary is not the period on the sentence of existence, but a mere interpretation.
A career obituary writer herself, Marilyn Johnson removes the power of judgment completely from obituaries. “…Obits are,” she says, “at their best, a form of literature…”
Across the U.S., a hybrid obituary, a cross between short stories and obits, celebrates the life of local characters, the extraordinary in the ordinary person. The school lunch lady, who spent her evenings as a ballroom hostess. The man who could hypnotize lobsters and stand them on their heads….
Take this USA Today obit about Herbert Hamrol. Herbert Hamrol, by all definition, was just a guy who worked and lived a regular life. But his obituary, grabbing the tidbit that he was one of the last survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, makes an otherwise simple life into one including drama, daring, and, most importantly, history:
Herbert Hamrol was 3 years old when his mother carried him to safety from their crumbling apartment building at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. “She carried me in her left arm and used her right hand to grab the stair rail,” Hamrol told The Associated Press on the earthquake’s 99th anniversary. “That’s all I remember.”
Even the Obituary section in The New York Times — once the paragon of the obituary-as-final-dirt-on-the-grave — is now one of the most widely read sections of any periodical anywhere due to its embrace of the obituary as story.
For an example of the transformation, take this obituary from September 29, 1891, tucked into the lower half of a column with the day’s death notices. It consists of a few lines about some guy named Herman Melville:
Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.
I would say that’s a pretty fair assessment of Melville’s life, wouldn’t you? Lived in Chelsea, wrote some seafaring tales (did they really misspell Moby Dick?), was married, had a couple of kids, and died in Chelsea. Hey, it’s more than most of us do, plenty enough for a complete life.
Now read this obituary in The New York Times written this past month by Margalit Fox (another change in the obit industry, the honor and agency of the authors) about “Richard Topus, a Pigeon Trainer in World War II.” This is an obituary Melville could only have dreamed of — a heroic tale of one man’s expert bird-handling and his later success as an executive dairy salesman:
To the thousands of American men and boys who raced homing pigeons, a popular sport in the early 20th century and afterward, the government’s message was clear: Uncle Sam Wants Your Birds. Richard Topus was one of those boys. He had no birds of his own to give, but he had another, unassailable asset: he was from Brooklyn, where pigeon racing had long held the status of a secular religion. His already vast experience with pigeons — long, ardent hours spent tending and racing them after school and on weekends — qualified him, when he was still a teenager, to train American spies and other military personnel in the swift, silent use of the birds in wartime.
It goes on to describe his childhood in Brooklyn, where he fell in love with the pigeons his neighbors kept on the roof, and a brief history of the role of pigeons in defeating the Nazis. It’s inspiring, really.
It’s also quite a departure from the Aristotelian view of obituary-as-completion. Rather, it presents life and death as a continuum. Today’s obituaries are more like the optimistic Ben Franklin notion of life as a neverending story. Like literature, an obituary has the power to completely reimagine a life in examining it, for as long as anyone is interested. Life in this view always has potential, as long as we‘re engaged with the past.
In fact, we have no idea what death really is. But obituaries aren’t interesting because of what they say about death. They’re interesting because of the funny and pathetic way they purport to deal with the unfathomable. Obituaries are little fairytales we tell ourselves, while imagining our own lives as one day complete enough to write about. An obituary, any obituary, transforms lives into stories, with interesting characters, a cohesive plot, and most importantly, a good ending. This is what we’ve got as humans — not the ability to understand or be at one with death, but the ability to generate lots of stupid crap to fill in the empty space of the unknown. Obituaries can do that as much as anything, and maybe we can think of them both in the Franklinian and Aristotelian sense: They might not complete life nor make it eternal, but they can make us feel better about living in the constant and terrifying presence of death.
At the end of his letter penned to the grieving Elizabeth Hubbart, Ben Franklin writes “Our friend and we are invited abroad on a party of pleasure — that is to last forever. His chair was first ready and he is gone before us — we could not all conveniently start together, and why should you and I be grieved at this, since we are soon to follow, and we know where to find him.” I like this way of thinking of death as an everlasting ship or maybe a party boat, taking passengers abroad. Many good stories have been inspired by ships. Maybe if we just keep writing them, we can cheat death a little after all. • 22 April 2009