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.