I am an avid reader of obituaries. This may seem to be morbid reading material, I realize, but the truth is that obituaries are about life, not death. Yes, it can be sad, especially when it was untimely. The most heartwarming ones are when the dearly departed are in their late 90s and died in their own sunlit beds, surrounded by thirty-nine great-grandchildren. More highbrow newspapers have obituary writers but the average local weekly relies on those left behind to come up with a brief summary of a complex life. Some obituaries just list the person’s role in society: father, soldier, post master general. Others might include their hobbies: fly fishing, salsa dancing, stamp collecting. When the person has had a long illness, they usually have a long obituary as the people around them have had a while to work on the piece, usually with multiple drafts. When the death was unexpected, then the obituary is usually written with the bare minimal of details as the survivors grapple with their shock and grief. All obituaries include a list of survivors, those who will carry the memory of the departed. For it is for those people that obituaries are written in the first place, those who must remember.
I love reading obituaries written by the survivors because they are more intimate, more engaging, more humorous, even, than if a stranger did the deed. Often these sorts of obituaries are riddled with terrible grammar and word choices but that is part of the charm. These are not professional writers but people who were experts on the deceased. They write with sincerity not with concern about correctness. Obituaries are all about function and very little to do with form.
As a writer, you are being given an insight into human life, details into worlds unknown, right there in your local paper. I suggest that everyone who is feeling fearful of death these days go and find an obituary page. Read the stories of those who have gone before us. Remember that death is not an extraordinary event. It is the final page of all of our stories. What is extraordinary is what happens in the preceding pages.
This week we have two stories, one from the formidable Kelli J Gavin, a frequent contributor to Mercurial Stories. The other one is from yours truly.