I have a strange habit. It dates back to when I first became a newspaper reporter.
Some people play with their hair, crack their knuckles, or say “Umm” and
“Like” frequently in their speech. My habit: I read obituaries.
No, I really read them. It doesn’t matter if I know the person or not, if they’re rich and famous or poor and unknown. They could be young or old. I tend to check the obituaries once a week from the small town where I grew up, but it really could be from anywhere.
I like reading the obits because they’re a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. They tell epic stories of life and death and, probably most important, they prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.
Many of the death notices from my hometown sound similar, but there are still some that stand out. Take this sample that I stumbled across one evening: An obituary for a woman in her 70s included all the usual info, her survivors and how she liked to cook and sew and go for long walks, but it talked about how she moved away to Baltimore. She returned for a weekend trip and fell in love with the love of her life, the man that would become her husband for fifty-some years.
From nothing to something. I instantly pictured a TV movie of the week or a higher brow, art-house movie with Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren, or Blythe Danner in the lead role.
Everyone has a story to tell
The craft of obituaries has changed. They tend to lack a lot of detail now, besides the list of survivors. When I first started out as a newspaper reporter, I had to occasionally help write up local obituaries. When I complained once at one job about having to cover obits instead of checking out the Big City crimes beat in Northern Virginia, my editor shouted out that everyone had a story to tell, you just had to find it. I don’t remember much else that he taught, but I remember taking that as a challenge to find the real story. To this day, I still love obituaries that give you details you never knew.
For example in former Brooklyn Dodger Don Newcombe’s obit this week in the New York Times, I was fascinated to learn of his role in the Civil Rights movement. Now I have never been a Dodger’s fan and care little about 1940s and 1950s baseball, but I was hooked. The writer had me, so much so, that I couldn’t put the story down.
“While Newcombe was proud of his accomplishments as a pitcher, he was gratified as well to have played a role in the civil rights struggle by helping to shatter modern baseball’s racial barrier after the arrival of the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and catcher Roy Campanella,” The Times obit read.
“He once said that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King came to his house in the weeks before his assassination in 1968 and told him, “’I would never have made it as successfully as I have in civil rights if it were not for what you men did on the baseball field.’”
In the end, I suspect I like reading obituaries because it reminds me to live my life one day at a time and to hold nothing back.