Like a lot of people, I get the daily newspaper. And I have the fairly common morning routine of perusing it as I enjoy my hot cup of coffee and breakfast. Unlike most people, though, the first section I turn to is the obituaries.
It feels odd to admit, but I have come to like reading the obituaries. It started out as a curiosity: I simply wanted to see the average age of people in our area who recently passed away. But then one day three years ago, I came across the name of a gentleman who lived in my neighborhood. I pass by his house when I walk our dog several times a week, and he was almost always outside tending his beautiful flowers, or coming back from a neighborly visit next door. He always had a kind smile for me, an interesting story to tell, and a send-off of, “You have a blessed day now, young lady.” He was a true Southern gentleman, and I always turned off his block feeling lighter.
Seeing his name in the paper changed the obituaries for me. The entries were no longer just names and ages in black and white, the pictures were no longer of strangers. Now these were people I might have sat beside in a waiting room last week, stood in line behind the other day, or lived next to and whose little stories had become a happy part of my weekly routine. Reading the obituaries became a way to “keep up” with my neighbors and fellow town residents, and even to pay them a fleeting moment of respect.
Over the past three years, though, my obituary reading has morphed even a bit little more. What began as a quick glance out of curiosity and turned into a quick hunt for facts, has finally become a full, slow reading of each entry. And more often than not, I find myself smiling by the end.
Perhaps it seems morbid, twisted, but my smiling has nothing to do with their deaths. I wish no one any harm, sickness, sadness – ever. My smiles are caused by what their friends and family write about their lives. Very rarely does any other part of the newspaper tell the joyful details of someone’s life. Not even the wedding or birth announcements give really happy details, they’re all just facts of where, when, who, and what. But an obituary tells readers about the person. We learn that Mrs. Smith was called “Ma” by all who knew her, how Mr. Brown had a passion for cooking, and that Mrs. Jones was a poet and fifty-year member of the local poetry society (a true obit that struck a personal cord). Often the families who write these mini biographies also tell about where the people were born and went to school, where they met and married their spouse, where they raised their kids and went to church. Lives are recorded.
I still look through the rest of the news, but now it feels weird in comparison to reading the obituaries. It seems like a bizarre voyeurism to read about all the murders, car crashes, molestations, bodies found, burglaries, and of course, which politician was caught lying or cheating. The people in the obituaries may be deceased, and certainly none of them was perfect, but it feels more normal somehow, more human, to read about the lives that were lived right around me, than to read cold facts about ugly events. The sweet things said about those who’ve passed on, how they touched so many lives, how much they accomplished, stands in happy contrast to the discouraging, disturbing news that fills the rest of the newspaper. In fact, the obits are testimonies to life, proof that despite the murders, bad politics, and thefts, we can all persevere, and create full, happy lives worth writing – and reading – about.