IF IT'S SUNDAY,
IT'S OBITUARY DAY
There's nothing like a dissertation on death to get your
Tuesday morning off to a cheery start. I'm happy to oblige.
In particular, I've been thinking about obituaries. For those
of us who still can't relinquish the feel of the morning paper in our
hands, obituaries are part of our daily routine.
In The Chronicle, we open the Bay Area section, read about a
couple of local calamities, and then turn the page and death is suddenly
all around us. During the week it's pretty subtle, only a page or two. Few
survivors are willing to pay megabucks for a one week run.
Sunday is the real death day. It's a smorgasbord of life tributes,
page after page of pictures and stories. There's no escaping. Front page
columns and features jump to the back pages, and the obits are in between.
You can quickly flip through them, but you still know how many people have
died. And those are only the ones who can afford to print an obituary.
When I was younger, I would definitely flip through the
obituaries, barely giving them a thought. I would never read about the
life of someone I didn't know, unless they were famous. I had no interest.
So why now? With each year that passes, I find myself more
drawn to the lives of the dead. I still feel a little guilty about it, a
little morbid. It's almost like a car accident on the freeway. I try not
to look, but sometimes I can't resist.
I never look at the list of names. That's too easy. I do a
quick scan of each full obituary, looking at the pictures, if provided,
and then noting the names. Quite often, maybe once a month, I see it's the
name of someone I know. And I'm relieved to see it's almost always the
parent of my friend or acquaintance. My generation is, for the most part,
I suppose that's the main reason I'm becoming more drawn to
the obituaries. After looking at the pictures and the name, I find myself
looking at the date of birth. 1920's, 1930's, even the
1940's---that's a good long life, something to aspire to. A little fist
pump is in order. 1950's and beyond, that's not so good.
When I see those later dates, reality sets in. There's no
question my generation is next on the conveyor belt. But most of the time
the obituary is of someone older than I, and I can read it without too
much guilt, or fear. In the perfect world, everyone who dies should be
older than you.
I certainly don't read them all. That would take up
most of my Sunday morning, and I'd get some weird looks from across the
table. But while I used to read none, now I pick and choose one or two,
and they can be fascinating.
Whole lives are encapsulated in 200 words, or 600 words, or
1200 words, depending on the survivor's budget. Some are fairly simple,
but always interesting to read. And some have a list of accomplishments
that can make you feel like you've done very little in comparison with
your own life.
Some are well written, some are choppy. All are lives well
lived. Finish a good obituary and you feel a kinship with the deceased.
You know how they got to the Bay Area, their loves, their families, their
careers, their hobbies. Sometimes you read between the lines, sensing some
pain. Those are the most honest ones.
I wouldn't be surprised if I read more and more obituaries as
I age. It just seems like a natural progression. 20 years ago I would
never read one. 10 years ago I would glance at them. Now I read them
occasionally, with only a little guilt from a morbid curiosity. I wonder
how I'll feel in another 10 years.
When I come across the obituaries in the Sunday paper, I'm
amazed at the consistency. It's almost always five or six pages.
Apparently, death does not take a vacation. It reminds me that everyone's
time will eventually come, and a loving family member will write the
Or you can write your own, or at least make suggestions. My
father, who wrote a column in The Chronicle for over 50 years, had the
greatest line for his obituary, and I'm requesting the same. He wanted it
to read, "Much to his surprise, Arthur Hoppe died yesterday."
Now that's a good start to an obituary.