Linda Henry

Thatwhich

Why I read the obituaries

March 25, 2015

This is not news to those who know me, but I like to read the obituaries. Like seems like the wrong word in this context, so I may as well call it what it is: a compulsion. Iíve postponed writing this for a while, waiting until a window of time when no one I know, even remotely, has died. I realize that for those who have recently lost a loved one, my obituary fascination may come off as a little glib. Itís not, glib as that may sound.

When I was in my 20s I worked as a production assistant for a travel magazine in New York. One of my co-workers dismissed my compulsion by saying, ďYouíre a writer. Obituaries are the stories of peopleís lives, and writers love stories.Ē Since I was just a lowly production assistant, my co-workerís ability to see my writer soul gave me a real boost of self-esteem. Plus, he was right. Then as now, I love reading these little blurbs of peopleís lives: who their survivors are, what mattered to them, their proudest achievement ó whether fried chicken, or, in a favorite obit typo, fried children.

When I pull up the obituaries in the local online newspapers, the question at the forefront of my mind is always ďDid anyone good die?Ē Itís not so much that Iím wondering if someone I know has died. Itís more like I want to know who is no longer among us, even if I didnít know that person. What was his or her story? What were they up to, and did they see it coming? How and why? Or maybe just why.

For instance, ďdied unexpectedlyĒ is different from ďdied after a courageous battleĒ with some disease. We put a value on those we perceive as facing death courageously. I feel like those who die unexpectedly are given short shrift. How do we know their state of mind in the last moments of life, whether from an unexpected accident or a suicide? Are we certain there was no courage? Or when we die unexpectedly, is courage even an issue? My impression from reading about near-death experiences is that in the end, we realize everythingís going to be ok as we stroll toward the beautiful light. I think the real courage is required for all the moments that lead up to that moment: the diagnosis, the prognosis, the letting go of things that donít matter. So-and-so died after a commendable battle with the inevitable. Letís leave it at that.

And yet, I always want to know the cause of death, even when reading a strangerís obit. Maybe itís because Iíve lost a few people in unexpected and terrible ways, but I always wonder what random bullshit struck on that day that ended a life. Of course, even if the obituary supplies the answer, it never satisfies. What Iím really looking for but will never find there is the why, because the whole thing seems so damn unfair. The young ones just barely had a chance, and the older folks are just finally figuring it out. So thatís why I read the obituaries. Itís an imperfect medium, but itís the closest we can get to a compendium of who weíve lost , how we lost them, and the people who will miss them. But why? I suppose weíll all know soon enough.

Selected Works

Essays
My daughter likes depressing books. ďSomeone dies in the first chapter,Ē Grace says gleefully of a novel she canít put down. Maybe this inclination comes naturally, growing up with the ghost of a sister she never knew.†
In which my brilliant son prevails against middle-school bullies. Adapted from "A Voice Not My Own"