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A life-long love of death notices

I’ve always read the obituaries, ever since I was a little girl. Some people think it’s morbid, but I don’t.

It’s not so much about looking for people I know, though there’s an element of that, of course. It’s mostly about gleaning what I can from the encapsulation of a person’s life in such a small block of text. It’s about pondering the questions that emerge from the gleaning.

For instance: “Dad is survived by his wife, his nine children, his 26 grandchildren, his nine great-grandchildren, and the many women in his life that he loved and cared for.”

That intrigues me.

Or sometimes there’s an idea for a story. A few days ago I read an obituary for a woman who had eight daughters and no sons, which left me thinking about the various ways that could have played out, depending on the personalities involved. Did she and her husband end up with so many kids because they kept trying “one last time” for a son? Were the births of their daughters met with joy, or with disappointment? Was it a big happy bubbly girl family, or a simmering stew of resentment?

Occasionally an obituary will betray dysfunctional family dynamics: “He will be sadly missed by his loving step-sons, Mark and Andrew. Also leaves a son.”

Sometimes I read about a person and wish I’d known them. “He passionately taught his children and grandchildren about everything from attire to fishing lures, and instilled in them his life-long values of integrity, humility, acceptance, and caring.”

I like obits that go beyond the basics, and include a few quirks or qualities about the person. “Don rejoiced at the invention of the Post-it Note and carried with him at all times his Letts Diary, including a fold-out list of past events – some four decades’ worth – in 6 point font.”

Lately it has become the standard to include a photograph of the person in the obituary. I wonder who chooses the photographs. Family members? Or the dying person? And why do they so often choose a photo taken when they were much younger? A few days ago there was a picture of a young woman of perhaps 20, accompanying the obituary of a 93-year-old great-great-grandmother. Is it because she wanted to be remembered as young and attractive? Or is it because she doesn’t really feel like that old person she became?

Sometimes something just strikes me as funny. Like last week when I read the obituary of a woman who had been predeceased by her husband, Harold Assman. Harry Assman! Ha ha ha ha ha.

(I shouldn’t laugh. Death isn’t funny.)

Anyway. Does anybody else out there love the obituaries?

13 comments to A life-long love of death notices

  • Yes, I love them too and look at the page every day, even if I don’t have time to read all of them. I too have often wondered about the pictures that appear of the person when they were very young. I don’t think I would ever want that, but who knows how I will feel when I’m that age.

    I can also be very practical about death. My Dad has had a pretty diverse life including living in many different countries. A couple of years ago I asked him to write his own obituary because I knew it would be important to him to capture many parts of his life. So, I have it, saved on my computer.

  • I skim the obituaries – ours are not as entertaining or personal as yours – and am starting to find contemporaries listed there, which is a bit disconcerting. I console myself that they were the ones who never stopped smoking. And I look at the photos that almost always depict the deceased as healthy and happy. And younger! Sometimes there will be two photos, one from their 20s and one more recent. The changes that life brings to one’s face are interesting. And when I read the obits, I always say out loud, “We are all going to die!” and “It doesn’t seem fair!”

  • Death may not be funny but Harry Assman sure as hell is.

    You make me want to read obituaries now.

    (Also, about the first man: OB/GYN?)

  • Mary

    I love obits, too. I wondered about the younger picture until I asked my mother what picture she wanted to accompany her obit. She told me that there was only one picture taken of her that she liked. She arranged to have a portrait done before she married her first husband. The picture was published in the newspaper along with her engagement announcement. When I wrote my mother’s obituary in 1997 it was accompanied by that same picture taken in 1932.

  • I and a few other people were recently talking to an older gentleman at a funeral. He was in his mid-eighties.. He commented that he always reads the obituaries, mostly to see if his name is there. I thought it odd, until he said, “And guess what? Last week, my name was there, in the obituaries.” The group laughed…But it was true. Somebody with the same name has him had died. And he’s been reading the obits all this time, just to see his name in print. I’m glad he got to see it while he is still alive…:)

  • I read them at my parent’s home but not usually. Some people have very few pictures taken of them. Usually it’s picked in the last minute scurry after the death. Few people are pretty in their 90s. I could see going with an old picture. Or if they left town year ago, a pic the age they were when most people who’d come to funeral would recognize them.

  • Lo

    I DO! HAve always read them and wondered about the people! The pics remind me of a lot of real estate agents photos-They are from forever ago and look nothing like them!!!!!
    I’m preoccupied with death,infinity etc so obits go with it. I pride myself on being able to write a great one too-had too much experience unfortunately. AND like you, i love an original one. I will have to write my own if I want it to stand out!!!:)

  • Every now and then I’ll pretend to scour the obituaries in a coffeeshop, hoping that somebody will ask me if I’m looking for something in particular.

    My prepared response (which I’ve not yet had the occasion to use) is: “Many years ago I paid a witch doctor a lot of money to put a curse on an enemy of mine, and every day I scan the obituaries to see if I’ve finally gotten my money’s worth.”

    I keep a document on my computer listing people I know who have died, so that I don’t forget them.

    Almost universally, people feel really bad when they discover your parent is dead (even though you’ve come to terms with it years ago). I like to play on this as much as possible. For example, when someone makes a “yo mamma” joke at me, I tell them that my mother is dead (usually in a serious tone). They will gasp with horror and apologize (what, for killing her?), and I will laugh at their irrational response.

    – RG>

  • I don’t. Not the everyday ones. If there’s a long piece about someone who did something I’m interested in, I’ll occasionally read those. But not regularly.

    …not to be too dramatic, but for a long, long time reading about the end of other people’s lives would’ve just had me thinking about the end my own.

    About fifteen years ago (1995-ish) I was looking through The Sun looking for a place to live and came across an obit for Eve Gibeault, I still have it. She died in 1989, but they don’t list the cause. It’s just two quotes, then the names of the family members.

    I really found it odd it had been five years and they were still having it published… odd enough that I wrote about it in my “journal” anyway — and I did come across it again in the Sun a few years later.

    I’ve always wondered about how much they must miss Eve for them to continue the mourning period on for so long.

    I also came across a website a few years ago… it’s not really an obit, more of a memorial, but it was set up as sort of an online version of what the Gibeault were / are doing. It’s called, and it memorializes a young woman who died from cancer several years ago.

    The site is updated regularly by Zoe’s family, and people are asked to submit photos of Zoe, and I think they still leave messages.

    My two questions to myself after I found the Zoe site… does this stuff help the mourning process, and; how long is too long to keep the tributes going?

  • I don’t read them. My Mom and good friend do and they mention some “interesting” obits once in a while. Recently they shared an honest obit…it was obvious the children did not like their mother. Sad. Sometimes I wonder what my kids/husband will write about me…

  • *Snert*! Harry Assman! I may have to scan the obits a little more often (I usually skip ’em), although I don’t think this town could beat a Harry Assman.

  • grace

    I read the obits every day even before Knitnut . . . Same reasons: the names, the stories told, the stories I read between the lines.

  • Gail

    I read them everyday and have done so for a long time. Long before I was the age to easily be included. I love these small stories of peoples lives and the images they produce. There are some very interesting people living in the DC area and the Washington Post does a wonderful job. Lately so many of the people who served in WWII are leaving us. Reading those and many others makes you think how little you know your neighbors. Even if I don’t read every one I certainly look at all the photos. I have told my kids I want a full length bikini photo. Unfortunately I will be gone and they are very conservative.