Obituaries

I was sad to read that Don Rickles died earlier this week. He was 90 years old, and vibrant to the end. The New York Times had a good obituary. He died on April 6, 2017, outliving Isaac Asimov by exactly 25 years.

Obituaries fascinate me. When I sit down to read a newspaper, I almost always turn to the obituary pages first. Why this is I can’t say. The only exception comes when I read small regional papers while traveling. There, I am curious about local color and save the obits for later.

It would be wrong to say that an obituary was a miniature biography produced posthumously in the immediate aftermath of some notable’s passing. For one thing, biographies are usually strictly chronological. For another, it is sometimes hard to tell why one person warrants an obit in the paper, while another does not.

A typical obituary starts like any other newspaper story: with the who, what, what, when, and where. About half the obituaries I read include the “how”, i.e., the cause of death. In Mr. Rickle’s case, it was kidney failure. Once the basics have been established, an obituary proceeds directly to the thing about the person that makes their obituary noteworthy. I call this the “Why Do I Deserve An Obituary” section.

Good writing builds to a climax. Obituaries routinely break this rule. Just as they get interest, there is a sudden and dramatic change of subject. The recently departed is then formally introduced to the reader: “Benjamin Franklin Pierce was born in Crabapple Cove, Maine, on April 1, 1922 to Dr. Daniel Pierce, a lobsterman, and the former Edna…” The rest of the obituary is biography.

Obituaries of famous people are interesting, but we often already know the details of their lives. I find the obituaries of less famous people far more interesting. I wondered if anyone had ever bothered to collect obituaries in book form. A quick Google search made it clear that I am far from the first person to have that idea.

Back when I was in college, I minored in journalism, and I seem to recall that new reporters were often relegated to write obituaries, as if it was some kind of proving ground. Decades later, I find this rather remarkable. Obituaries are themselves small works of art, capturing an entire life in a few hundred words (maybe a thousand for someone really notable). The job has to be stressful. Moreover, it has to be somewhat grim. Don Rickle’s died on Thursday, April 6, and the New York Times posted its obituary probably within minutes of the story being confirmed. A lot of the material had to have been in place already. It was just up to someone to fill in the when, where, and how.

I’m often fascinated by how long people live, or how short their lives have been. Obituaries encapsulate so much in so little that I often come away from them with a desire to live my life to the fullest. Each obituary is a reminder that the subject is out of chances… but I’m not. At least, not yet.