On Reading Obituaries

Middle age has its share of secret joys. One such joy that is rarely discussed and rarely admitted to is the joy of reading obituaries. Other people’s obituaries, at least. I have no idea what it might be like to read one’s own.

Some persons have had the good fortune to read their own obituaries. Mark Twain may have been one. He cracked something to the effect that the reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated—not a bad remark to make in the face of one’s demise. My good friend William Cole, the noted light verse writer and anthologist, was off on a holiday jaunt to Ireland when I chanced to read his obituary in the New York Times. I knew that someone had made a mistake. William Cole indeed had died, but it was another William Cole. I quickly clipped the notice out and sent it to my friend, noting with certain irony that quite a few things had happened in his absence.

In the autumn of l993, Joseph Epstein, who writes (under the pen name Aristides) those marvelous casual and not so casual essays for American Scholar, expressed surprise at finding his own name in the obituary column:

The other morning I was surprised to find my own name on the obit page. Surely I hadn’t become so out of it that I failed to notice my own death. I was relieved to discover that it was not I but a professor of Philosophy at Amherst of the same name who had died. I hope my friends, reading this obituary, were similarly relieved. If my enemies were sorely disappointed they should not worry: I promise to make it up to them eventually.

Reading one’s own obituary might well have a bracing effect upon one’s character. There once were two actors named William Boyd. One William Boyd was down, out, and greatly depressed. He decided to commit suicide, but when he returned to his hotel room to do the deed, he glanced at the newspaper and saw an obituary for another William Boyd. Seeing his name listed with the dead gave him a resolve to go on living. He went to Hollywood and today he is best remembered for having played Hopalong Cassidy.

Most of the time, however, we read other people’s obituaries, and we note either with horror or with contentment the ages of the deceased. I choose a page of obituaries at random and I notice that some one has died at forty, another at fifty-four, a third at eighty-six. And so on. On that very subject Roz Chast, the noted cartoonist, recently published a cartoon in The New Yorker. The cartoon depicts a middle-aged man reading the obituaries; the headlines are “Two Years Younger Than You,” “Twelve Years Older Than You,” “Five Years Your Senior,” and “Exactly Your Age.” Looking at the ages of persons who have died relatively young, I wonder what it means to be granted so many more years on this planet than some other persons. What good have I done with all the “extra” time?

Nor am I the only person to partake of this activity. Joseph Epstein once dutifully confessed:

One of the habits of the middle-aged (and above) that I have had for a number of years now is, when the newspaper arrives, going first to the obituaries. Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news; the same is true about death, which also stays news; and I have long found the obituaries the most interesting and important items in the papers. Each morning I turn to them looking for—what? In part for notification of the death of the famous, the death of enemies, the element of surprise that someone whom one thought long dead was until the day before still alive, the shock of youthful death through AIDS. All these items, the obituary columns supply in part.

It used to be in the old days of journalisms that young reporters would cut their teeth by being assigned to write obituaries. There is undoubtedly an art to writing a good one. I like reading obituaries to pick up odd facts and stray anecdotes. For example, although I know there is no crying in baseball because of the movie A League of Their Own, I did not know that Lavonne Paire Davis (who died on February 2 of this year and who partially inspired the Geena Davis role in that film) had written a memoir called Dirt in the Skirt. I am now searching for a copy.

Other obituaries can be a source of book and movie ideas. Did not William Saroyan, that old magician, once perform the high-wire act of composing an entire book based upon obituaries he had found in Variety?

But the best thing about obituaries is their sense of completeness. A life is set down, if not in its total full-fleshed form, at least in its outlines, with survivors—wives, lovers, children—frequently mentioned at the end.

One obituary that I did not get to read was the one I should have been given the privilege of reading: the obituary of my father. When my father died, I took it for granted that the local town paper would publish an obituary, but I was naive in such matters and did not realize that one paid extra money to the funeral home for the writing of the notice. Being a writer, I should have gone home to write the obituary myself, but I had other things to think about. Besides, my father lived for over thirty-five years in the town and had served it well. I thought at the very least the paper owed him a notice, a notice he did not get.

Perhaps that is why I am always greatly moved by the scene in John Updike’s novel The Centaur, when Peter Caldwell is lying in bed with his mistress reading the obituary of his own father, an obituary that had been written by one of George Caldwell’s high school students.

It is one thing to read the obituary of strangers and another to read the obituary of someone we know and love. The obituaries of those we love are read as closely and as a keenly as love letters. And perhaps they are love letters of sorts. Remember us. Remember us. Remember us. But we, most likely, shall not be remembered the way we wish to be remembered.