Relationships

The End of the End

A few well-chosen last words from a faithful student of the newspaper graveyard

Photograph by Getty Images

I love reading obituaries. Not only because I like to picture the person who was given the task of writing that last little essay about the human never to be seen again, but, since I wrote my father’s obituary, I secretly hope that one day he’ll send me a response telling me how thrilled he was to have been showcased in the Sunday Times, right after the guy who invented the Dodger Dog.

Mainly, I love spending some time with the words that were chosen to be the final summation – the end of the end – the part of the novel where you go to turn the page and can see the last sentence without actually looking at it.

I often admire the things that are written. Oh, that's goooooood: ”devourer of life,” “shining jewel,”... "Damn, I should have included that," I think. But there are always, in just about every group of obituaries, several standard lines that people tend to, um, dig up.

1. SURROUNDED BY HER LOVED ONES

There's something about insinuating popularity until the end on behalf of the departed that feels satisfying. Maybe I'm the only defensive one, but isn't it safe to say that, when someone dies, there's a good chance that there may be one or two haters out there and you just have to send a message in grandma’s honor.

2. HIS FAMILY BY HIS SIDE

This is what I went with. We were by his side, holding his hand, telling him how much we loved him. You know the story, right? In an obituary, when you read, "His family was by his side," chances are the family was telling the person "It's OK, you can go now." Even though they didn't mean it. Even though what they wanted to say was, “We’re not keen on this permanent departure stuff, so if it’s not too much trouble, could you arrange it so that you don’t go? Ever?”

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3. PRIVATE JOKES

This is something that reeling grievers write, totally believing that the dead loved one is laughing his or her ass off after reading the clever one-liner. I used this one, too. Worked like a charm.

4. THE LIST OF SURVIVORS

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This can be eerily short, like, "Marv is survived by his poodle, Sue," or it can be unusually long, listing dozens of nieces, cousins, nephews, mailmen, children, colleagues, foundations, dry cleaners and students. I know it's my black heart, but when I read one of these I think, "I wonder if this person was truly liked."

5. ACHIEVEMENTS

This is where things go awry and people start to seem scary, sad or emotionally unavailable. If the list of achievements is too long you think, "When did Dr. PhD, MBA, DDS, MD, get to hug?" And if it's too short or cryptic, this can conjure up a picture of vague hermit behavior.

6. THE CONUNDRUMS

Every once in a while, I’ll stumble across an obituary that contains something so unusual that I can’t stop myself from cutting it out and saving it. Over the years, the oddest ones that come to mind are:

"Three years into their marriage, Cantrell died after being thrown from a mule that had been frightened by a hog."

"He is survived by his wife, Joanne; his daughter, Joanne Jr., ..."

"We will miss his great intellect, wisdom and love of smoked delicacies."

I can’t imagine what process led to the choices of those particular words, but I can imagine that feeling in the chest of having to surmise a life with a limited word count. It’s hard not to want to use the obituaries as some kind of message board to the great beyond. Where sentences are like telegraphs, saying over and over again, We still miss you, come back.

   
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