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MUSINGS FROM THE GRAVEYARD

IMG_4883Since Crispin Leads has invested her academic career in the study of burial rituals across cultures and across time, Meredith Lee spends time thinking about them too. This blog features her musings on the topic/subject.

Post #1 Life Poems and Death Notices

Crispin Leads talks about death notices, or obituaries, during her first dinner with Roberto in Chapter Four of Shrouded. She calls them “little life poems.” The inspiration for this insight is from one of Meredith Lee’s graduate classes in which she analyzed three days of obituaries in the local newspaper. Her findings stuck with her. Here’s some of what she wrote in that academic paper.
In three days in March, Austin said good-bye to a coach, who liked to play forty-two; a gay man who left behind his life partner of 24 years; an engineering legend known as “Roadrunner”; a former apartment mate of LBJ and Ladybird; a railroad conductor-turned-minister; and a teenager who lost his battle with brain cancer.
The death notices published each day in the local paper chronicle bits of daily life, both public and private. They offer glimpses of the life of people at the moment of their death. They can tell ever so little about little lives: COE: Infant son (names with held) died Friday. Services 2 p.m. Wednesday, Pentecostal Tabernacle. Burial Evergreen Cemetery. (King Tears)

Or, in a few words, tell us much more:

  • She grew up helping with the ranch, was always a hard worker, and never shirked a task
  • The essence of her life was to help those who needed help and to never pass judgement on people because of color or religion.
  • She used her organizational skills in bookkeeping and as a secretary to aid her husband.
  • During these years, she maintained her dignity, her love for family, and her deep belief in God. Her many good works towards so many people were countless.
  • To his friends, (he) defined the word “gentleman.” A call, day or night, would bring (him) out to rescue you, uncomplaining, from any real or imagined emergency. (He) was an organ donor, and therefore, as a last act on this earth, did one last favor for someone.

A life, sometimes spanning nearly a century, sometimes less than a year, is condensed to a few highlights. A person is born. Goes to school. Serves in the military. Takes a job or raises the kids. Goes to place of worship. Volunteers in the community. Wins awards. Wins hearts. Dies. Is missed. Leaves behind memories.
Over and over again, life stories are told with a rhythm that accentuates these every-day events. There is the recitation of family connections, those “loved ones” left behind or those that “predeceased.” There is the list of accomplishments and career highlights. Sometimes there is a little about hobbies or favorite pass times. Always, there is the when-and-where of funeral services and burial. Some are accompanied by mug shots of a smiling, vibrant person in the prime of life.
These statements are a way of establishing a printed record. They put in writing, in a public place, those things that will do more than just mark, in the way of a tombstone, the coming and going of a life. They also serve a second purpose. By describing the accomplishments and personal qualities of the person who died, these paper-and-ink public testaments help those who morn give those who read the paper a sense of the magnitude of their loss. Obituaries are little life texts that occupy a special place on the news pages. Like wedding and birth announcements, the content of these news items is controlled to a great degree by actors in the story.
Because the space given to obituaries is paid for as part of funeral expenses, it could be argued that these notices share more in common with advertisements than with news. But they also serve a social purpose, which is as much about the living as the dead. They give the living information about connections they may have to this event and information on which to act, such as the where and when of services and preferences for memorials. Finally, these obituaries include biographical information that offers an emotional connection with the event. Whether or not the reader knew the person in life, they come to know the person a little in death.
Parting Notes: Movies that feature obituary writing include:

  • “The Guys” (2002). Sigourney Weaver plays a writer who helps a fire captain prepare remarks for the funerals of eight of his men lost in collapse of the World Trade Center;
  • “Obit” (2016). Documentary about the life of New York Times obituary writers; and
  • “Last Word” (2017). Shirley MacLaine plays a controlling retired businesswoman who takes part in writing her own obituary.

-Posted on May 24, 2017