They are all too common in the old print styled newspaper, and nowadays, in online forums which are often hosted by the funeral homes as a service to the family– as well as to the public at large. My trusty New Collegiate Dictionary from Webster defines the word as a “notice of a death”, but then more particularly also including a “biographical sketch” of the dearly departed. The roots of the word are found to be Latin, from the original “Obit”, which can be used as a verb and entails anything from the actual death of a person to the resulting funeral service. The ending of the definition, given as a noun, is the usual “notice of a person’s death”; in est, “an obituary in a newspaper”.
As a description of a life, it would most likely be a short descriptive, written as a miniature biography. But, what makes the obituary unique is perhaps the point of view from which it is written. They are not by any means objective and generic works. Quite the contrary, they are poignantly skewed from a very personal point of view. In this way, the #author of the obit is composing an essay of sorts, which contains a personal opinion on the life which has passed on into the next realm. In many ways, the obit is a celebration of the life now gone. Even still, I am bothered by a question. Is the published obituary an attempt to eulogize a life? Or, is it an attempt to reach out as it were… to those who are unaware of the death… to all of the relatives who have suffered a loss? This is not to suggest that one might “advertise” a death. But, does the author, perhaps even unwittingly implore all who knew the departed or who were acquainted with the survivors, to come and join those in mourning. Is an obituary an attempt to gather reunions of the living… solely for the sake of those still living?
I believe that they are.
It is my opinion that there is very often no other reason for me to know of a person’s death, other than to be made aware of some other person’s loss, perhaps an old friend– and that this old friend might be comforted in some way by my caring enough to show up, and offer condolences. From these gestures, it is very possible that the long dead friendship might be rekindled… that old friends could become new friends again… and if that were the case, then a life of sorts will have grown from the death’s notice. At least– this is what I would like to believe.
I read the obituary of a person last night, who I will not name, with a rather blasé attitude. The person in question, by this point in time, was only someone I had once known, 30 or more years ago. As a matter of fact, I would imagine that I hadn’t seen this person within the last 20-25 years, and likewise had not given much thought to them more than 2-3 times within that quarter of a century. Having said that much, the actual death did not sadden me. I felt, if nothing else, that this person had led an admirable life… indeed, a very long and fruitful life. The lady in question was survived by a sister, children, many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren which numbered well into the double digits.
But, I was not saddened by her passing. I didn’t know her well enough to feel a personal loss at her passing.
I was though, and still am, profoundly saddened for an old friend… I was sad for his loss. This other person, my old friend, happened to be the departed lady’s grandson. But, I feel a sadness on multiple levels, not all of it having to do with the death of his grandmother.
He and I are a month apart in age, and were in baby cribs together. Indeed, we were fast friends until different pathways in life– namely those of religious choice and then geography, divided us as sharply as if we were enemy combatants. I’m sure in his mind and in others within his circle, we were enemies, if only on some basis that was erected and then sustained by a system of beliefs that I no longer felt any kind of allegiance to. In this way, I did quickly become a foreigner to him and his family, and they to me. I now know and understand that there was no way that the difference could have been avoided, and even at this later date, I’m inclined to believe that there might never be a proper mending of that fence.
If I had to guess, I would imagine that it has been nearly 8 years or more since my old friend and I had any real words between us. If we then define a relationship as having an actual and meaningful dialogue which accompanies the physical presence of people, that realization might stretch back nearly 27 or 28 years. We were once friends, very good friends, and yet over the unknowing and uncaring threads of time– we have become– and have remained strangers. Across these years, limited attempts were made by both to bridge the gap. Finally, after what seemed to be an appropriate amount of time, all communications and any last vestiges of friendship ceased to exist. In a very real way, we had both lost someone– we had lost each other. There were no subsequent attempts aimed at reconciliation, only a silent grief remained.
This, amidst and remembered through the death notice, is what saddens me.
So, why was the obituary printed? Was it to alert the lady’s next of kin or close friends of her death and funeral services? Was it to advertise to the reading public of her splendid life, of the accomplishments for which she strove, and those which she achieved? Did the author of her short biography demonstrate that the deceased led a worthy life, attended church, and as such was most likely already in the presence of the Almighty, that none need worry of her eternal whereabouts? Was the point of the short essay of this lady’s life to inform any survivors who possessed some extra cash or a checkbook where the memorials should be directed?
Or– could it have been something else. Was the announcement a reminder, for those who still draw breath, to heed death’s knell; perhaps to remember that there is still time for the living to foster old and possibly broken friendships. Was the obituary itself a call to distant relatives who did not hear the terrible news directly from the immediate family; so that they too might rekindle lost and dying embers of kinship, before another announcement occurs, and with it– one more chance for healing or fellowship is lost?
The obituary and time spent at the funeral parlor is absolutely for the living, but not so that they may simply visit a coffin. It is not that they may convey flowers, present memorials, or perform other gestures of remembrance for the departed. The obituary is for the living– that we may learn. We are born, and then we die. In the middle, we live; albeit, sometimes in a rather pathetic manner. The obituary beckons us to live better, to try harder, and to BE better… until the end, and death, consumes us all.
The obituary, the thing which many see as a terrible announcement of death, is something else entirely. It is an announcement; indeed, a proclamation, that those still living should not merely continue to live… but to endeavor to live well… that we should endeavor to live exceedingly well.