In Praise of the Interesting Obituary

For most of my reading-life I’ve read obits nearly every day. In my early grade school years I learned the word succumbed from my daily reading and knew right away that it was a serious and sorrowful situation, which was more than a little intriguing. Obits of the day were somber–survivors were left to mourn the passing of the person; wakes, masses, and funerals were held with interment following. It was an odd vocabulary for an 8-year old, and it took me some time to figure out what the writer really meant.

Years later skimming the daily obits was part of my job working in the library of the Oregon Historical Society. I was looking in particular for members of old Oregon families, or more importantly for descendants of Oregon pioneers. Along the way I learned about names, families, and occupations and came to truly appreciate the accurate and creative obit.

Now I collect obituaries, snipped from papers or printed from online listings. And in the margins I often start lines of poetry about the person or their life, about the phrases that made my heart clench, or about the questions, intentional or otherwise, that were raised. It’s not unusual to find pieces of my collection tucked into my cookbooks or used as a bookmark in my Bible. And just last week I came across one in a side pocket of a purse that had been put away for the season.

When I use the words accurate, creative, and interesting I don’t necessarily mean the great and small accomplishments that are so respectfully listed, but rather I appreciate those unexpected true-isms offered by someone who really knew the decedent and understood their quirks and joys or those written by a person who probably didn’t understand the rules of regular obituary writing and instead wrote what they saw as the straight scoop on the circumstances of the passing.

So here’s to the thoughtful writers who give to us those perfectly poignant and poetic bits of real life—and to those who just had to get the job done.

Today I memorialize Elna, born on her mother’s kitchen table on a remote ranch in Eastern Oregon, and Lydia, who passed peacefully while playing a game of pinochle with her lady friends, and Omer who left for Glory while sitting in his church pew on a Sunday morning. And finally I think of a loving nephew’s Aunt Liz who passed peacefully and without incident, in her own bed at home.

All of these and more. I think about them sometimes, as if they were part of my own story. And Aunt Liz’s nephew, I often wonder just what kind of incident he might have been expecting at his aunt’s passing—maybe a roomful of feather-winged angels or someone asking her to change her will. Whatever it was I hope he’s satisfied with the way it happened.

*As always, names have been changed.

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