I am a devoted reader of obituaries. They stand at a junction, where pain and grief meet joy and celebration.
Well-written obituaries are crammed with history: Kathleen Mary Gibson Russell was a member of the Black Sash anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and “a niece of Violet Gibson, who had attempted to assassinate Mussolini in 1926.”
They offer philosophy: Canadian actor Brent Carver advised young performers not to fear new projects but to say instead, “I need to do this, and grace will take over.”
They voice caution: Brent Scowcroft, national security counselor to presidents from Nixon to Obama, said the world no longer believes the United States means well. “It is easy to lose trust, but it takes a lot of work to gain it. Can the sense of confidence in us be restored? Sure. But not easily.”
They express personal values: William Faulkner wanted his epitaph to read simply, “He made the books and he died.”
They are the diatribes of a bereaved family’s outrage. Texan David W. Nagy died after suffering “greatly” from the COVID-19 virus. His family blamed his “needless” death on the politicians who did not take the pandemic seriously and were more concerned with their popularity and votes than lives. “Also to blame are the many ignorant, self-centered and selfish people” who refuse to wear a mask, the obit read.
They urge us to action: Instead of making a donation in her memory, one obituary said, “Marjorie would want you to think of her when you vote against (Donald) Trump in November.”
They paint portraits in words: Yale scholar and author Harold Bloom described himself as a “monster of reading,” and a friend once described him as large and disheveled, “an enormous collapsed tent of a man.”
They remind us of great talent: Pete Hamill’s August obituary sends me to my library to fetch his book “Why Sinatra Matters” and to order a copy of his memoir, “A Drinking Life.” These and his other 19 books give us a way to hang on to him a little longer.
They can be poetic about courage: Designer Isabel Toledo liked living close to the sky and among the sea gulls. Her final illness was sudden, but when it was time, “she flew off like a powerful condor.”
They can make us chuckle, like the obituary for Wick Allison, founder of D Magazine: “All of us, if we are fortunate, meet one or two angelic people in our entire lives whose serenity and calm circumspection not only inspire reverence but gently usher us toward a lifelong journey in search of our best selves. Wick Allison was not one of those people.”
One of the best tributes I’ve ever seen was in the New York Times, “Robert Gnaizda, 83, Who Saw Injustice And Did Something About It, Is Dead.”
I read obituaries daily in the local newspaper and whenever I come across a small-town paper. I especially like polished mini biographies of the New York Times’ obits. I don’t know most of these people, but I read about them with admiration. Some were pillars and some were pebbles, and all contributed to building a community.
Some obituaries are short and blunt, others list survivors, education, profession, awards, hobbies, social organizations, causes and pets. A few are deliberately, or inadvertently, funny. One of my favorites several years ago listed among the deceased’s surviving relatives his children and two blue monkeys. Let’s sit back and think about that for a moment. I choose to believe the author phrased it awkwardly.
In Tulsa, recent tributes to two friends set high standards. The death notice of Kitty Roberts recounted not only what she accomplished for local theater, but also the significance of those pioneering achievements. That of Gene Buzzard reflected a man who delighted in life and believed blue cheese was overrated.
I value well-written obituaries so much, I have begun to draft my own. I do not intend it to be used for many, many years, but knowing the people who might be left behind to write it — some overly busy and others with an odd sense of humor — I don’t want to leave this to chance.
Notes so far: blue-collar daughter, teachers who changed my life, forgotten artistic adventures (Tyger’s Eye poetry reading group, the Little Black Dress art exhibit at the University of Tulsa), books I’ve written (although why bother since I won’t be around to collect royalties), husbands and jobs I have had (odd that I link those two words together), lots of blank spaces for awards and accomplishments yet to come, a place for quotes of praise (note to self: find people to quote; pay them if necessary), and sprinkles of detail to show a joyful life.
I will close with this verse:
“She lived a colorful life
(in local news),
and wore purple shoes.”