Written by Dale Suderman Tuesday, 20 February 2007 18:00I like reading newspaper obituaries. There is something both elegant and instructive in seeing an entire human life summed up in just a few words. Plus, sometimes one can tease out more meaning from the simple facts.
The Free Press does the minimalist version, giving little more than place of birth, time of service, sometimes listing the occupation and surviving relatives and naming a memorial fund.
(Sometimes it is even a guessing game how the person was connected to Marion County.)
Obituaries in small-town newspapers are most democratic-every person with any connection to the county is worthy of a few words and a modest headline. And distinguished citizens and the most modest life get the same print space.
Big-city obituaries are often puff pieces that require decoding. For example, very often "Women Civic Leader Passes" in Chicago often translates that she married some rich old guy and spent a great deal of time giving away his money to political parties, colleges and social causes.
The trophy wife of Ray Kroc-the founder of McDonald's-gave a gizillion dollars to the Salvation Army as part of her legacy, and the widow of a pharmaceutical company executive gave $100 million to fund poetry.
Obituary giving is the attempt to do one spectacular thing toward the end of life-sometime to offset the misery one created earning the money. Thus the rich businessman who endows a chair at a university or builds a new hospital wing will be recalled for this-not how he accumulated his wealth.
The New York Times pre-writes obituaries. If you are-or were-modestly famous or infamous, a reporter will call you and ask for a discreet visit to your home. The reporter asks, "Do you have any final insights about your life? How would you like to correct the public perception of you?"
Although you are not told the article will run after your death, most folks know this is their final turn in the batter's box and find the interview either amusing or unnerving.
The eulogy is a spoken obituary. I remember the funeral at which my father whispered in my ear during an overwrought, effusive eulogy for a relative, "Hardly seems like the same person we know, does it?"
The most disturbing comment I have heard is the line, "Sure, there were hundreds of folks at his funeral. But did you notice how many want past the casket holding up a mirror to his nose to make absolutely certain he really wasn't breathing?"
A few years ago I went to a Chicago funeral so sad it was funny. John Paul was a street urchin in Chicago. Allegedly he died when he stuck his finger into the wiring of a microwave-the more probable cause of death was a drug overdose. At his funeral-home service his grieving widow was wearing new tennis shoes.
A local Baptist minister picked up a few dollars conducting services for total strangers. He got up and said, "John Paul was born at Lakeshore Hospital."
Then he ran out of material that was fit for a eulogy. He stumbled around and recited the list of his children-four more kids than any of us knew about.
He stuttered that John Paul occasionally worked at his uncle's gas station. Now the preacher was sweating-he was completely out of material. It was difficult to say that John Paul ran up and down Chicago streets stealing, conning and doing drugs-when he wasn't in prison. So the preacher repeated himself and said, "John Paul was born in Lakeshore Hospital."
But at least John Paul was a loveable scoundrel. That is more than one can say about some folks.
Obituary living means knowing that our lives do eventually get summed up in a few words and a few rituals. And while we are living we might as well do a few decent things.
You can contact the writer at Suderman@AOL.com.