Why I read the obituaries

Why I Read the Obits 3x

[In this post, Kickstart Your Writing student Michael Cannarella reveals his fondness for reading obituaries. He then takes his interest one step further and suggests that writing fictional obituaries gives writers an opportunity to hone their craft, especially when it comes to character development and capturing a life in an anecdote, a few words.]

By Michael Cannarella

Many years ago I rented a room in Marquette, Michigan in a large house overlooking Lake Superior. The house originally belonged to a judge and his wife. Only the judge’s old wife was left in the house. (I shoveled the drive as part of my room rent obligation). I usually saw her when the local newspaper was delivered in the evening. She picked it up and immediately turned to the obituaries in the newspaper.

At the time I thought her behavior was notable and strange. Now for me, many years later, I understand. I read the obituaries. Like listening to a good piece of music, they are something I can read more than once and enjoy. Here is a person’s life encapsulated in a few paragraphs. I know these few paragraphs capturing a life have a tendency to “pretty things up” but heck they may be the last words written about a person. If we “pretty things up,” it’s like giving another human being the benefit of the doubt, no more than what we would wish for ourselves. So each obituary goes: Here lies a human, washed, dressed, hair combed, warts removed.

Obituaries also often display great economy by highlighting just a few events that illustrate a character’s long life. Of course there is an art to good obituary writing. The writer must find a way to capture the character. Does the story tell more about the obituary writer than the departed? It’s a fact, few people write their own obituary.

For me, reading obituaries is also like a correspondence course for mortality awareness. Like the stop sign at the end of a road. A mantra to mortality. It is no secret that often our grief at a loved one’s death is a shared awareness of our own mortality.  The obituary is a short, simple recognition, a notation on the terminal nature of life. It provides the end piece for a life. The obituary syllabus: No more enjoyable meals with friends, the limits of the body, memories of the departed, remembered deeds, a life has ended, show over, as it is for all of us.

Obituaries are concise encyclopedic entries for people that lived here, the great and famous and the neighbor down the street. Whether it is about the eye doctor you knew years ago and saw periodically or a composer you have admired for thirty or forty years but never met, the obituary is the short story of a life that yields for me, when well written, some intimacy with that person and the life lived. And of course with an obituary there is never, or almost never, a surprise ending. From the beginning we know what an obituary is about.

One thing I sometimes find irritating about obituaries is when the cause of death is not noted. This is particularly irritating when the obituary is about a younger person. Why?  There should be some transparency about the cause of death when one dies young.  Okay, I’m prepared to make an exception for rock stars until after the autopsy, but it is not morbid to want to know why or how a young person died. The cause of death should not be a secret.

And yes, I do notice the age of the person in the obituary. The scale for me: Are they older or younger than me? Different feelings run through me depending upon the age of the person in the obituary.

Passed away or dead? I prefer dead. Passed away seems to skirt the issue in a fundamental way. Dead carries the finality of the event so much better. We know from life experience what dead means. Passed away seems to subtly postpone the reckoning or breathes into it some little bit of life or hope. Passed away—it is what you might say to a child so as not to upset them. Passed away.

So I suppose you could write fictional obituaries, view it as a writer’s exercise for character development, the challenge of capturing a life in an anecdote, a few words.  Amazon offers books on writing nonfiction obituaries:

There are books extolling the idea of creative obituaries. That leads to the thought of creating an after-death memorial to oneself. Why not write your own obituary? Why not have the last word? You can take the lead on this. It presents the possibility for a whole new genre, the fictional obituary. The challenge for the writer would be to see how good, how creditable a character you can create via this genre.

Which brings me full circle because, of course, all obituaries are fiction, but fiction based upon a life, honoring a human being who lived and died. For me the obituary is a word sacrament, a ritual, a story of a life lived well or not. In that sense, the obituary honors all life.



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