99 New: The Sunday Obits

The world is full of dead people. Especially so on Sundays. My dad always joked that everyone seemed to die on Sunday because that’s when the paper would be thick with obits. The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News would have pages of dead people, tiny, grayish print, you had to squint to make out people’s lives. My dad would read each one; he said he had to check to make sure his wasn’t there.

In this morning’s paper, a young woman had two obits. Same woman, two different pictures, and two slightly different obits – one emphasizing her military career and the other her education. Had there been confusion about whose job it was? Was there an argument about what to include? Neither obit told us why she died which is really what everyone wants to know.

Sixteen years ago, I sat with my father while he wrote my mother’s obituary on his ancient Underwood typewriter, the same one that now sits on the bookcase in my office. He distilled her life into two or three clipped sentences, the name, rank, and serial number of an 84-year old woman to whom he had been married 64 years. I wondered why he couldn’t think of more to say, you know how people talk about their loved ones being terrific gardeners or loving spending time with their grandchildren most of all, that kind of thing. But it wasn’t my place to be disappointed in his postage stamp size bio of my mother. I remember him always saying, you don’t have to say everything you know, which is advice I’ve given to myself many times since, and I bet he’d decided he shouldn’t start in on saying what he knew about her or the obit would never end.

That might be why so many obits sound alike. People can’t really choke out any words so they just choose from the list of popular obit words, like the way brides land on the same five or six pieces of music for their weddings. So beloved, courageous battle, gone to join, reunited with, and loved spending time with family and so many other words and phrases show up like rearranged Scrabble pieces. It’s the rare obit that really stands out. Many years ago my daughter wrote one for her grandfather that started out referencing how much he enjoyed chocolate pudding in his last hours. It was a surprising and unorthodox obit, for sure, but true to the essence of his personality. She knew, knowing him, that Scrabble words wouldn’t do.

I don’t worry what will be said in my obit. It’s out of my control. And it’s not as if an obit is etched in stone unless it’s a particularly memorable one like my daughter’s chocolate pudding gambit. Today’s obits will be in the recycling bin by tomorrow replaced by a new set, smaller because it will be Monday and not so many people die on Monday as we all know. Monday is a slow day for death. It’s Sunday where the action is.

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99 New refers to my commitment to write a new piece every day for 99 days. This is Day 70’s piece.

3 Comments on “99 New: The Sunday Obits

  1. I love this Jan. Thank you for sharing. This makes me think about my grandmother, who I loved so dearly, that passed away a few years ago. I never saw her obit. I am curious now. And this is so true. Obits rarely do people justice.

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  2. After I was treated for cancer at 34, I read the obits religiously. And, as you can imagine, I was focused on age. I didn’t want to see anyone dead that was my age or younger. Mostly, they were older but it was a gut-punch to see the young ones. Twenty years later, I don’t do that so much. But I do have a friend who obsessively reads the NYT obits, not for my reason but because he learns really interesting things about people, like the guy who invented velcro.

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  3. I thought my mom’s obit for my granddad was lovely until my uncle told me it was half made-up. Who even knows? (fun fact, since I used to do probate law: a lot of obits are written by funeral homes as part of the package, you fill in some blanks and they churn one out for you)

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