One of my favourite sections of the newspaper, is the Obituaries.
I can hear the guffaws now, the one-liners aimed in my direction, “what are you looking to make sure you are not in them?”.
Putting that all aside, I am not a necrologist, the idea of death doesn’t fascinate me. Considering my previous line of work, many would feel that would be an allowable and understandable character flaw.
Of course, obituaries are not about death, they are about a life lived. They are historic records of times, peoples, and places, lives which have been now forever lost. Of course there is emotion woven into the narrative in the reading of any obituary; especially if that person has become known to you personally. It tweaks the soul and makes us pause. The sensation is underlined by the fact that all of us will, one day, be the subject of an obituary.
A few of the police newsgroups cover the deaths of police officers in particular. Those that served in policing in some capacity through this broad land. Some of those deaths are after long spates of illness or a sudden tragedy, but most are the result of many years lived.
Those that from some twist of fate had shortened lives or were torn from us by some unpredictable illness forces us to be observers –voyeurs of a family’s most heart wrenching moments. It is a glimpse of a family or a family member which allows us to imagine their grief; cathartic for some, tearful for others. The prose, style and the stories in these cases are often overwhelmed by the sadness of it all, both for the individual and the families left behind.
All however, tell a story of birth, life enjoyed and lived, friends made, partnerships formed and children produced. The cause of the death is seemingly less important, it was just “time”.
Our media of course focuses on the celebrity, the politician of some renown, the entertainer who entertained us in some fashion, valuable to society in varying degrees. Some, for personal reasons, touch us deeply, as they were part of our life in a memorable and distinct time. They conjure up memories of the way we were, the songs which were part of our high school dances, the fond moments of getting ice cream at a parlour advertising the three flavours, when we were growing up, those formative years.
In a previous blog I mentioned the assassination of Kennedy when I was a mere 9 years old having some ill definable impact on my life. I was moved by simply knowing that something very important had just happened. The world and my world had changed.
Each of us move to a different beat, a different perspective, a different level of understanding which dictates how we react to some lives taken from us. Each generation defined by its own distinct times. An older generation reaches back decades in their memories and are now moved by the passing of Desmond Tutu or maybe even Betty White. The obituary paints the picture and thus allows us to go back in time, to picture those distant moments often in graphic detail albeit once forgotten.
Geography and profession can dictate what catches a readers attention, taking note of a particular life passing. A soviet ballet dancer who was part of the Bolshoi, more likely to have influenced a young girl living in Moscow or the 10 year old girl in Canada forced to into the requisite dance class.
When I read about RCMP police officers having left us, I read because I understand, recognize the circumstances they found themselves in, can relate to the emotional touch points. One can picture the young recruit from the 1950’s arriving in a remote Saskatchewan town, or in an outport of Newfoundland. Wide eyed, knowing nothing, being introduced to the old veterans in the detachment, finding your way around the small village, all eyes on you as you drive or walk by.
Many of those now passed officers knew little of the place they landed but would form lasting friendships, enduring relationships, and some would even decide that this is where they wished to spend the rest of their lives. Children would be produced and a new generation would become part of the newly adopted town fabric. A city slicker could become a gentleman farmer, a farm boy or girl could live their lives immersed in apartment towers and traffic jams. For everyone, no matter what the choice, in times of reflection, this is almost guaranteed to become the “good old days”.
Fate plays a distinct role in these life stories. We don’t live life in a straight line. Our life arc is continually buffeted by circumstances, by other individuals, by changes and decisions made. The doors you walk through and those that close behind you are turning points and are often not pre-meditated. It is only in looking back that you understand the significance.
There is a fascinating documentary simply entitled, “Obit”, which is highly recommended to you my fellow necrologists. It features the day to day life of Obituary writers for the NY Times, their perspectives on life and death, their choices of who “deserves” an obituary in the NY Times and those that do not. They are good writers first and foremost, able to set the tone of the times and the significance of the life on which they are assigned to write. Even those that died may have not been newsworthy during the time they lived but their death is now news.
The Times keeps a “mortuary” card and photo index of all newsworthy lives dating back to the early 1900’s ensconced in a ramshackle basement archive. They write about those that lived a usually long life, lived a creative life, a distinct life, a life worth mentioning. Not all of them fit the criteria, in fact the more interesting ones tend to be about those we didn’t know–the death of a man who rowed across the Atlantic and then the Pacific ocean because it was there, or the 16 year old female aviator who barnstormed the country in the 1930’s while still in high school and lived to the ripe old age of 98. Many of the upper crust of American society are disappointed if their beloved family member does not become a few column inches in the NY Times.
Does reading an obit cause you to think of your own mortality? Of course, we all end up there after all, but it makes you ponder whether you could be doing more, spending more time with others, doing things that promote your potential and well-being, all the while realizing that the finality of life is often not under your control.
In the last couple of days in the Mountie world, chosen randomly, there was Steven Neill Brown who passed at the age of 72 but spent 42 years of that life with the RCMP. Tom Edwards who joined the RCMP in 1956, who in his spare time liked dancing, and even taught dancing. Ken Davis, who liked to draw and after the RCMP had a second life working for the Cities of Kamloops and Nanaimo.
Three lives who in just the last few days are now gone, each with their own unique story, distinct personalities, their children now following in their wake. As a police officer the profession by definition means that they would have touched others, sometimes profoundly sometimes only for a few seconds.
So you see the obits have almost nothing to do death but everything to do with the life. We must remember that lives lived well are always interesting. Reading of a fulfilled life offers up inspiration and challenges you.
Socrates said that “death may be the greatest of all human blessings”.
Jim Morrison more to the point said “no one here gets out alive”.
Clearly death is inevitable and it is said that no one can talk about death for more than a minute without having to change the topic. So, even though I enjoy reading about other peoples lives, I will admit that am not real keen on being the subject of one.
For those that have gone, may their souls find a good resting place.
Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr–Some Rights Reserved
3 thoughts on “Life in the Obituaries”
Was really tempted to do as you thought might happen ..some off colour comment on above the grass or sumpin’. But no. I think all of us of a certain age get what you are talking about. Enjoyed your process. Hope post pandemic we can get out and and back to participate more and do better mentally as a group.
the fact that you had to bite your lip made me chuckle…
As always Pete, a well written, great think piece.