Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The joy of obituaries

There have always been obituaries in newspapers, but I can't say I noticed them until I entered my sixties. Suddenly they were interesting.

First, a note to obit writers. Do not omit the person's age! I can't believe how many obituaries don't list the age. This is essential to the message. Was this person 12 or 96? It matters. And now, on to other aspects of obituaries, such as the thrill (okay, the fun) of reading them.

I don't know how others react to obituaries, but I find myself poo-pooing people who die in their 40s or 50s. Don't these people have any mettle? What happened to their stick-to-it-ive-ness? Weak as water!

The most amazing thing about them is the three or four-word summary of the person's life.Three words? That's so scary. But I must say they do a damn fine job of it, at least at the Times. Among today's offerings we find, "Wright-trained architect"; "Writer of Gentle Wit"; and "Shaper of Hit Records". You have to give them credit for packing a ton of information into such a tiny space. Then again, there are some obits that may as well say, "Had good appetite," given the person's lack of achievements. These, of course, are great fun to read. "Liked big parties". Indeed. Yes, there is humor in obituaries. You just have to look for it (and perhaps you should be somewhat old).

And of course, we ruminate as we read the obits. Oh, that one was my age! Gasp! This one was a writer too, and he died younger than me and just before he published his first book! There's a ton of this as we pick our way through them and relate their situations to our own. But we can't die! It only happens to other people. This goes round and round and I don't know why I call it fun, but I do.

With the exception of very young people dying, I don't feel sympathy for any of them. First, they're usually titans of corporations and I couldn't care less if they died. Mind you, I only read the Times obits, so it's partly due to their focus on the rich.

And as a regular reader of these things now, one thing I notice is the obscene lifespans of so many rich people. There are tons of 97-year-olds and 102-year-olds in the Times obits, and most often they are people who led luxe lives with excellent, lifelong access to health care. Money seems to make a big difference in how long you live, at least in this country. Sadly, there is inequality even in obits.

They're fascinating and I suppose they'll only become more interesting as the years march by.

UPDATE: In this morning's Boston Herald there is an obituary with the following four-word summary: "Ceramist Responded to Holocaust with Art". I feel a kinship with this fellow because I've responded to the American decline by writing books. Obits are interesting; they just are.