Reading The Obituaries
I wrote some time back about how I gave up my longtime habit of reading a newspaper made of paper after a long history of that being one of my favorite pastimes. Oops, I guess I only wrote about how much I enjoy them but failed to follow up when I finally stopped taking my local paper. After going cold turkey for about a year I have accepted one of their come-on deals to become a digital subscriber – which allows me to read the printed version on my screen. The biggest benefit? Obituaries.
We have all heard the old joke that “I get up in the morning and read the obituaries. If my name isn’t there it’s a good day.” I do read the obits every day but for different reasons. (If I can smell my coffee I already know my name isn’t there.)
First off, a scanning eye beats multiple mouse clicks every time. A quick scan will allow me to skim over names of family or whether they belong to a familiar church. The online version gave me a name, a picture and part of an opening paragraph but that was it. Add in the excruciating slowness of the newspaper’s website and it was clear that finding out more information came at a great cost of time and frustration.
One obvious benefit is looking for familiar names. Or relatives of those I have known. As I have gotten older I see names of people who were once in my orbit but have fallen out of touch, either personally or professionally. I learned of the death of some elderly neighbors this way, which allowed me to pay respects to their families.
Recently I saw the obit of the widow of the judge who presided over my first jury trial. I never would have made the connection without reading the whole piece. And I would never have known that one woman was the mother of a lady I know casually at church. Only by seeing the daughter’s married name did I make the connection.
An good obituary is like a little story, a window into how people lived and died. We learn about where a person grew up, a short description of family relationships and sometimes the cause of death, or at least a medical issue important enough to be the destination for memorial contributions. And we can learn what was important to them.
A big change came when obits stopped being written by the newspaper. For the last several years a teeny notice is free but anything longer is on the dime of the beloved. Reading the printed obit online is the best of both worlds – it allows me to click through to the “full obituary” that sometimes appears on a funeral home’s website in cases where the family declines to pay the publisher’s tax. And some of these folks know how to write a story.
It is interesting to try and figure out who wrote an obit. You can often tell by what is emphasized. Was there an emphasis on awards and achievements during life? Or is the focus on how the person’s life influenced and affected the lives of those nearby?
I wish I had cut out the obit I saw several years ago that was nearly an entire page in the paper. The writer(s) went into excruciating detail about the deceased’s accomplishments. No honor or award seemed too insignificant to include. Would you want to know the many awards this octogenarian had racked up in college many decades ago? This obit took care of that. I wanted to move on but something compelled me to continue, tedious as it was. This one had all of the earmarks of a person with a particularly swollen head. Of course it was possible that he left a family that was extremely proud of all he had done. Obituaries are best read with a charitable heart.
And there is the matter of where things go from there. Some folks’ obits exhibit a strong religious faith, others make plain that they had no space in their lives for such foolishness. It occurs to me that whatever their former opinion, they now know the answer – just what, exactly, awaits them. I always hope it is something good. Or at least not something bad.
As for me, I do not intend to write my own obituary. I will be content to let others rattle off the basics and to then include what they think readers should know about my life. Or maybe I should provide a skeleton outline to save family the effort of getting started (which we all know is the hardest part of writing something).
In either case I will not need to read it – I was there and saw it all live. And on that day when I do not smell the morning coffee, my hope is that the next step is something good. Or at least not something bad.
Photo source: Pixabay, free use
Very timely subject, newspapers and obituaries. I still pick the newspaper off the doorstep, that’s task #1 in the morning before I make coffee. Having cleared 50 years myself, the obituaries have become more relevant, as parents of friends, former co-workers and neighbors have appeared. Always good to make sure you’re not in there as well.
My mother wrote her own obituary, which in her pragmatic way was just the facts and mentioned all her descendants. I decided that her descendants knew who they were, so shortened that part and added a couple of sentences about her life and values. My Dad agreed, but I will probably catch hell in heaven (?) from her for changing it.
We had an obituary of sorts in our paper for the printing presses, which are being shut down soon as printing is consolidated at a larger plant in Toronto. They ran tours of the printing room a couple of weeks ago, I went with another Engineer from work. Very impressive to see that paper whipping through the presses, 40,000 copies an hour is a lot of paper. Interestingly some of the presses were bought used from the Washington Post, presses that ran the Watergate and Pentagon Papers stories. When they made a movie about that they came here to film the pressroom scenes.
For the first time in my life I live in a newsprint-free home. It is not an easy transition, but one I figured I would have to make some time, so . . . yeah. The local paper had become too pathetic to pay full delivery price for, and since going back I see that they no longer even have an editorial page on any day besides Sunday. And I became a digital-only subscriber to the WSJ recently as well. Although once my promo rate runs out I may reassess given the tiny price spread between digital and print + digital. I do miss the tactile feeling of a broadsheet spread out on my lap.
I have not had to make obituary decisions. My younger brothers felt moved to take the lead on my father’s, and that was the last one we needed to deal with. As for your mother’s, I suspect that deep down she would realize that a little respectful editing usually makes everything better.
My mother had the duty of writing my grandmother’s obituary last year. She didn’t enjoy it. Then she read the obituary I wrote and posted on Facebook, not knowing she had written one. She said she should have just used mine to save her the trouble.
As for reading obituaries, well, I’ve moved around too much for them to have any real relevance for me. Before we, too, ceased subscribing to the paper, I would occasionally view them. With this area having such a heavy German population, with the variety of names being about as wide as the variety of songs sang at most churches (i.e., not much) there would often be a familiar surname but it wasn’t attached to anyone I had known. I haven’t missed seeing them.
An excellent point about the inverse relationship between mobility and the usefulness of obits. I miss any useful ones from my old hometown because I never read them.
A well written post. My mother is the only person I know who still takes the daily local paper, (two thin sections, 3 or 4 sheets each, much thinner on Mondays), and as I still love to read a newspaper, I read her weeks worth every Sunday. (There is a digital version with just the highlights, not sure why anyone would pay for it, when most of it is available online for free?) I always read the obituaries, both to see if I have lost any former patients of mine, and also because I enjoy reading about the different kinds of lives and experiences people have had, esp. older people who may have served in a war, or immigrated from another country or had an interesting career etc. Sometimes it can be very entertaining to read an obituary which someone has written themselves, esp if it has a bit of humor in it. I expect our local daily to die any day now, which is a shame as it has been in business over 150 years, but we do have a free weekly local paper now which comes in the mailbox (another relic?), to keep us aware of local issues or events.
My newspaper only shares some of its content for free online. They finally offered a digital only rate that was low enough for me to consider. When it goes to the normal digital rate after the first year I may have to reconsider because there just isn’t much there anymore.
Which is sad for a city the size of Indianapolis. Our paper is owned by the people who put out USA Today and I read that they are discussing a merger with another big news group known for massive cost cutting. It probably won’t be long before we get down to the NYT, the WSJ and the Washington Post as the only traditional dailys left in the US.
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I think it’s brilliant to write your own obituary, J.P. — at least that gives you some certainty of passing on your favorite stories!
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Haha, if I start telling stories in my obit it could be a whole section of the paper! 😛
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It’s an interesting topic, and I do think that writing obituaries well is a particular talent. There was actually a documentary about the people who write obituaries for The New York Times; unfortunately, I found the documentary less captivating than some of the work these people do regularly.
I was asked to prepare the obituaries (for two different papers with different guidelines and fees) for my sister, who died in late December. That was the most difficult writing task I’ve ever had, though I had input from her husband and daughter. Her daughter’s contribution was actually the loveliest sentence in the piece. But at an emotional time, I was also enmeshed in self-editing with an eye on the count of words, lines, and spaces, repeatedly recalculating to keep the costs bearable while sufficiently capturing the life of a gifted, loving, and accomplished woman. I learned a new skill that I hope never to use again.
I do not envy you having to write an obituary for someone so close to you – especially one not way older like a parent or grandparent. I can only imagine how difficult that would be.
And wow, do newspapers charge like crazy for obits or what? I once had a client who worked for a local paper and told me that they earned more money from the classifieds than they did from regular advertising. With the classifieds having gone extinct, I guess they have to get money from somewhere, so I guess grieving relatives is one such place.
Yes; it was extremely difficult, and yes—obituaries are outrageously expensive—hitting people when they are most vulnerable.
FYI: Your blog is one of several I go to that WordPress makes commenting a chore and, most recently, registering a like impossible. I respond to an email notification, but I am not recognized as someone who has ever been here before. I must add my name, email address, and website. Then when I click “post comment,” I get a notice requesting my WordPress password because, allegedly, I am not registered for this account. Each time, I click “remember me,” but I am quickly forgotten. And I see I’ll have to go through it again now, though I am replying to your comment. WordPress Happiness Engineers are zero help.
I am telling you these tedious details so that you will appreciate my perseverance in connecting with you!😉
I agree on the newspaper revenue plan.
Thank you for letting me know about the commenting issue. FWIW this time you came through as a first time commenter which requires my approval. I will look into this.
I saw that things on this end required a name and email to comment. I turned that requirement off, so let’s see if this helps. If I get overrun with nasty anonymous comments we will have to rethink things, but until that happens let’s go with this.
I chatted with another WP person who told me that I had to change my privacy setting in Safari, which I did. So please put your own protections back on, and we’ll see if it works on my part. At the moment I’m signed on as annieasksyou.com, so perhaps this will work.
I certainly don’t want you to get nasty comments due to your accommodating me!