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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading obituaries

If you still get a daily newspaper, do you read it front-to-back? I don't. I grab section B first; it has the local news, and at the end of section B are the obituaries. I read them as carefully as I studied baseball line scores in the sports section as a boy.

Apparently I'm not alone in reading obituaries of people I don't know. I find them fascinating and educational. Some are inspiring and others are saddening or even cautionary. Either way, there is at least one daily that provides me material for reflection, a kind of everyman's hagiography. Having lived in Raleigh for 26 years, at least once a month I see a family that I recognize. Occasionally someone dies whom I knew on a first-name basis. The frequency of that is rising.

The majority of obits follow a standard form that, I assume, is suggested by the newspaper or the funeral home. But there are creative and even humorous writeups, presumably for those we would have called "characters" in understatement. Photos range from recent to decades old. Many texts use euphemisms for death or quote from the decedent's religion. There are clich├ęs such as "battled cancer" that I wouldn't use, but that's the survivors' choice.

Reading the obits, I feel for parents and siblings when a child died, a tragedy I know something about. I applaud those who made it to age 90+, and I wonder whether they died with their minds intact. There is the occasional veteran of World War II or Korea, and increasingly often a veteran of Vietnam, who deserves my thanks. Some obits are full of accomplishments, but others describe people who lived simple lives or were modest by nature. Some people spent their professional careers in the service of others -- nurses, teachers, ministers, etc. -- and thereby influenced thousands of lives. There are people who suffered from illnesses or disabilities for long periods of time, and there are people with remarkable stories that began in one country and ended far away. A few people never married, others married only once, and still others have a complex and carefully ordered list of survivors. A small number of obits mention ex-husbands and ex-wives as indications of healing, acceptance, or at least acknowledgment.

What explicitly do I have in common with the deceased whose stories are printed? Sometimes a lot, often only the coincidence of living nearby. But every one of them and I have shared the human condition. Working alongside people of different nationalities and cultures has taught me that we all have the same needs, the same hopes, the same concerns, and the same vulnerabilities. This lesson is confirmed by obituaries, whether the individuals are lauded in death or fell from grace in life.

In closing, here's a handy website to stay informed of deaths of the noteworthy. Except for superstars like Whitney Houston, newspapers and websites don't always run these stories. All the news that fits, they print.