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Why I read the obituaries

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. I’ve 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. It’s 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, “You’re a writer. Obituaries are the stories of people’s lives, and writers love stories.” Since I was just a lowly production assistant, my co-worker’s 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 people’s lives: who their survivors are, what mattered to them, their proudest achievement — 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 “Did anyone good die?” It’s not so much that I’m wondering if someone I know has died. It’s more like I want to know who is no longer among us, even if I didn’t 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, “died unexpectedly” is different from “died after a courageous battle” 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 everything’s 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 don’t matter. So-and-so died after a commendable battle with the inevitable. Let’s leave it at that.

And yet, I always want to know the cause of death, even when reading a stranger’s obit. Maybe it’s because I’ve 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 I’m 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 that’s why I read the obituaries. It’s an imperfect medium, but it’s the closest we can get to a compendium of who we’ve lost , how we lost them, and the people who will miss them. But why? I suppose we’ll all know soon enough.
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