15 minutes of fame, three lines of print: reflections on a summer of obituaries

Donald L. Newport. I wish I could have remembered that name. Instead, I had to look it up in the archives of the newspaper where I worked this summer.

I had always thought I would have a story to tell about the first obituary I ever wrote. This summer marked the first time in my life I had to come to terms with death on a daily basis, earning 75 cents an hour as the “obit man,” among other majestic titles, for the Palo Alto Weekly.

The idea of daily receiving three faxed death notices from local mortuaries repulses most people. I spent months preparing myself for this after learning I got the job. But the first day on the job still took me by surprise. “Read this,” my editor said, handing me the intern’s manual, “and then call these people,” handing me a list of newly grieving families.

Christina had been on the job for a week – and one cycle of obituaries – before I arrived. She reassured me about calling people and taught me not get too depressed about “our dead people” – after all, I was not the one on the death notice.

At times I took the obits too lightly. At this point I would like to again extend my apologies and sympathies to the girl who bristled at an obituary-based come-on at a party this summer – had I known your uncle had two weeks to live, I never would have said that.

A famous humor newspaper once wrote an article describing grandmothers and children with Down syndrome as the only groups still possessing human kindness. I would learn that mortuary press contact people and grieving families deserve a place on that list too, although I would not understand the reason this could be so until later.

Before I reached that point, Bing Wee, a grieving godson, turned the tables on me with a question of his own: “Why do you want to know all this about my mom?” It stumped me.

I pathetically tried to explain the United States’ obituarial tradition. But as soon as I hung up I was considering myself a heartless prier and doubting the value of my work. Professor James Mahon angrily wondered this January how obituary-less Cubans find out who has died. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once said he read the obituaries first thing every morning and went back to bed if he saw his name among them. But I would need a higher purpose to justify what sometimes felt like picking at wounds.

I now understand, too late for Bing Wee, that I wanted to know details like the name of the town in which the deceased¹s brother lived for the same reason that people willingly told me such things. The obituary may close the book on a person’s life. But it also begins a new chapter in the larger story of a person’s spirit – in the words of one local columnist, one “of humankind’s most important transitions.”

It has been my belief ever since I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X that I would die an unnatural death. But whether I die by automobile, bullet or plane crash, that information will only occupy at most one phrase in my obituary. The meat of the obituary comes next, describing the life work of the deceased. This section often incorporates a family member¹s brief remembrance, and spans an average of three sentences in a “normal” obituary.

This section represents those things for which family, friends and the community will remember their departed. Donald Newport had the misfortune of having a rookie obit man and got only two sentences here.

“Born in Hanford, he was a supervisor for Pan American Airways in San Francisco and Seattle for 25 years before working for 20 years at Hewlett-Packard Co. He taught round and square dancing with his wife and was a caller for three Bay Area square-dance clubs while he raised his family in Menlo Park.”

Consider the three-sentence legacy you would want to leave if you had the choice. Would it mention what you did Saturday night? The clothes you wore today? What about your plans for this week? While some of “my dead people” may have thought about and even wrote parts of their obituary before they died, few people our age ever ponder their obituaries. And, if they were to try to consciously plan for them, their efforts could only have had a negative effect on their life. But I might as well try:

Gimmicks provide distinction in obituaries just as they do in high school, but a phrase about my “trademark bandana” would not add much to a discussion about my life. Nor, like another headline-maker, would I tout my membership in a country club. Christina admirably made that read like a beautiful accomplishment, which perhaps it once was, to certain people. Maybe she could do the same with my obsessions with water polo and bicycles.

In the end, I will have to keep any editorial comments to myself. A life in three sentences is a crapshoot, anyway. Luckily – which may be a morbid perversion of the word – two more sentences define ones legacy: the list of survivors and the preferred charity.

As much as I hope to have a long life, I would rather have a long list of survivors following my three sentences. They can give all the input they want, and I hope they have something good to tell the obit writer. But in the end she will have the final say. And Christina, odds are that you will outlive me, so good luck with it. Don’t feel bad about calling my family.