In a writing class when I was a freshman in college, the instructor asked us to write our own obituaries as an exercise in autobiography. It caused me to reflect upon what I would want people to remember about me if I were to suddenly turn up dead, and it also tuned me in to this obscure but interesting part of the daily newspaper. We can discern different things from a few paragraphs, including what constitutes a life well-lived and how a community thinks of death.
I live now in a town which is over 50% African-American, and several times a week I will see an obituary like this:
Last Tuesday at the family home, Mr. So and So passed from this life into the loving arms of Jesus. At the time of his passing he was surrounded by family members who sung Precious Memories, How They Linger.
I find that I am a little bit envious of Mr. So and So, especially since it is becoming more and more likely that another Mr. So and So will die on a stainless steel table under bright lights, naked and stripped of his religious vestments, surrounded by complete strangers who poke and prod his carcass and shout “He’s flatlining! WE’RE LOSING HIM!”, even as they apply the jumper cables to his chest.
I recently spent some time in Utah and while I was there, I read the obits in 5 different papers, from the Salt Lake City dailies to small town weeklies. Here are some observations from a very random and unscientific sampling:
- Catholic people mention Jesus and God in their obituaries. LDS people mention church and family.
- In rural Utah, cooking is apparently something a woman should be proud of, since every obituary of a woman I saw mentioned how much her family and her ward enjoyed her cooking.
- In rural Utah, it is very important that a man hunt and fish, and teach his sons to do the same. A man’s obit will overlook educational achievement, career, mission and military service, but the fact that he knew how to gut a deer and passed that skill along to his sons (no mention is made of daughters) is something they are proud of. One even cataloged the biggest deer the man had “harvested”, as measured by number of antler points.
- Even 120 years after the Manifesto, polygamy is still very much with us. One man had outlived three wives, and in the year or two before his death, he became active in the church. His obituary mentioned the day that he went to the temple and had all three women sealed to him.
- The number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren is a point of pride for us. Some obits mentioned all 42 of them by name.
- We don’t quite know what to think about suicide. There were two very short notices, literally only two lines in both cases, saying that someone who was born in the late 80s had passed away, and giving the date and time at which the funeral would be held at the stake center.
- LDS people go to a viewing. People who are not LDS go to a visitation.
- There were two obits which announced the passing of a person and instead of a funeral gave notice that a celebration of that person’s life would be held. One of these celebrations was planned in a tavern. I assume the deceased was not LDS, but I think it would be nice if we could think in terms of celebration of life.
Do you read obituaries? Have you found that they both reveal and reinforce community expectations?