Reading the Obits

I like to read obituaries.

This is not a morbid preoccupation. I’m not a ghoul, looking for gory details of death.

Nor is this related to getting older and becoming more aware of mortality. I became very aware of mortality over the last several years as I looked after my father and visited him in his nursing home, but my obituary reading started long before that.

I read obituaries because I want to know about people’s lives.

I should probably make it clear that I am picky about the obituaries I read. I don’t read death notices or brief funeral announcements. What I’m looking for are the pieces that report on the deceased’s life — a mini-biography, like the lovely one the Houston Chronicle ran on my father a few weeks ago, something that tells me about the person’s life and work and passions.

I’m particularly fond of reading the obit page in The New York Times. This week, for example, I read one on Lawrence McKiver, who was the patriarch of of the McIntosh County Shouters, a group that did the ring shout, a traditional African American musical form. I didn’t know anything about this kind of music. Some of it can be seen on You Tube. Now I’m going to watch for an opportunity to see a ring shout group in performance.

Obits make me search out a person’s work. When I read the obituary for Americo Paredes in the Times some years back, I was moved to read his book, With His Pistol in His Hand, which tells the story of the corridos, or ballads, written about Gregorio Cortez. It gave me a new perspective on Texas history — which was taught strictly from the Anglo point of view when I was in school — and also made me kick myself for not discovering Paredes when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas and he was teaching folklore there. But at least I was aware of his work when I first heard Tish Hinojosa sing “Con Su Pluma en Su Mano,” which celebrates him.

Of course, some obits can be annoying, like the one for Yvonne Brill, which also appeared in this week’s Times. She was a rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system that kept satellites in orbit and apparently she was the only woman doing rocket science in the United States in the 1940s. But the obit played up her mothering skills more than her professional ones. Maybe that’s because her son, who apparently gave the reporter the facts, prefers to remember her that way, but the reporter should have known better.

Not everybody gets an obit in the Times — they’re very selective — but there are many other places to find good write ups on people’s lives. Blogs are a particularly good place for sharing the life of someone who mattered to you, and professional journals often do obituaries about their members.

Little bits and pieces of the obits I read work their way into my fiction, though rarely directly. It’s just general reading, a way of learning more about the world.

There is a significance to it being obituaries, rather than biographies. An obit is a record of a person’s life at the time of death. I don’t believe in life after death, so I find it important to remember who the person was as part of mourning their passing.

And it’s also useful to remember the lives of those who did more harm than good, even if we’re not exactly upset to see those people go.



Reading the Obits — 10 Comments

  1. Hello Nancy Moore,
    I have recently listened to a radio play called “Catch The Smallest Devil” which is credited to Nancy Moore. I was wondering if you were the author? It was a great play and I particularly enjoyed the quote “catch the smallest devil and he will lead you straight to his master”. Could you tell me the origin of that phrase?

    Thank you,

  2. Having gathered thousands of obits in the course of my genealogical work, I consider them both interesting and vital. I am aghast when no one comes up with an obit. This seems to be a trend lately, partly due to the death of many small newspapers across the country, and partly because people don’t want “private family information” to be found on the internet. The latter phenomenon I regard as almost criminal; it’s like erasing a person from history. It’s making them dead twice over.

    I’ll be doing a BVC blog about this eventually. Been intending to do so since last May.

    • Do it, Dave, do it! And then (if you do not mind) let me send the link to a friend. There is a considerable interest in some circles in obituaries….

    • When my mother died, I contacted the San Angelo Standard Times, which was the first place she worked when she got out of college. I figured they’d want something, since newspapers are good about covering their own people and she was likely one of their first women reporters doing hard news. But they only do paid death notices. Fortunately, the Houston Chronicle still did them. In fact, the reporter who did my mother’s obit knew her. We were a little worried that the Chronicle wouldn’t do one for my father, since they are doing fewer. But fortunately his newspaper history got him in the door.

      I totally agree with you that it’s criminal that obits are disappearing. Given the tripe that gets shared on Facebook, how could anyone object to sharing the high points of their family members’ lives? It was very important to me to have my parents’ lives memorialized in print. Online, too.

      • I even have an obit from the San Angelo Times in my collection. My grandpa’s first cousin Ada Brown Luton was a long-time San Angelo resident. Died in 1978.

        • Hmm. Your grandpa’s cousin might have known some of my relatives and family friends. My great-grandmother ran a hotel out in Christoval and my father ranched near there before the war. My parents met while working on the Standard-Times, but they didn’t stay in San Angelo. My great-grandmother died in the mid 1950s. I bet she had an obit in the Standard-Times back then.