Friday, July 3, 2009

My New Life in Obituaries

In writing and in conversation, I like to refer to obituaries. I love obituaries. But if I were to say I always have, I’d be lying.

I would like to say the trajectory of my more-than-passing interest in obituaries and obituary writers began when I was a kid, and, like my mother, I opened our preferred hometown paper, The New York Times, to the obituary page before any other. But the truth is, while I did grow up reading The Times, and while my mom did go to the obituaries first, I was addicted to the sports and automobile sections—the lively, inconsequential ones—in silent protest of my mother’s interest in the new dead.

Mother always said she kept up with the obituaries to make sure she was younger than the people who’d died. But I don’t think her loyalty was so simple.

It has taken me more than a decade to catch up. I have expanded my Times reading to the limit, perusing every section of every paper I can get my hands on. (This summer I live in a Mississippi city where The Times is sold only on Sundays, but when I’m somewhere else I try to obtain a copy to read every day.) I pore over two areas in the newspaper more than any of the others: the front page and the obituary pages.

About a year ago, when obituaries were still of passing interest to me, I checked to see if they concerned people I considered relevant. Usually they did not. But back then, I think, I lacked the compassion, and therefore the courage, to read about people I’d never heard of.

Since then I have become more flexible. Not only do I attempt to read every obituary published in the Sunday paper, but I check the Times’ obituary Web page several times a week, to catch up on the ones I haven’t read.

I keep tabs on who wrote the obituaries—Margalit Fox or Bruce Weber, Peter Keepnews or Christopher Lehmann-Haupt); I figure out what kinds of people they tend to write about, and I look out for exceptions, as well as the bylines of ad-hoc obituary writers. And recently I have been learning about famous Times obituary writers like Alden Whitman and Robert McG. Thomas Jr. I save up their greatest hits for times when I must be inspired or fascinated. (As a young reporter, I’m awestruck by the challenge to summarize a life, never mind an important one, and by logical progression I have profound sympathy for obituary writers. Small wonder I was thrilled to come across an essay by Gay Talese called “Mr. Bad News,” which is chock full of information on Whitman’s life and example of his work.)

To feed my addiction, I have signed up to receive an e-mail from an outfit named Celebrity Death Beeper whenever a significant figure passes. When I get such an e-mail, I check The Times’ Web site, anxious to see what the newspaper has put together.

For me, a standard Times obituary will make me appreciate a person I’ve never met (unless, of course, I have met him or her). A good Times obituary will reveal to me a world about which I knew little if anything, or turn me into a fan of a person, place or thing, or make me wonder, “Why didn’t I know about this person until now?” A great Times obituary will challenge me to make more of my life than I was planning to.

My obsession with obituaries has driven me to look forward to deaths, and especially big deaths, which cause The Times to bring out work by some of its most talented reporters, like Robert D. McFadden.

The excitement I derive from news of a major death has caused friends and acquaintances to call me morbid.

I don’t care.

If anything, I’d defend it as a symbol of care and curiosity. Obituaries help me understand more about the world and human nature. After all, my continuing consumption of obituaries has made me more and more confident of the power of a single individual.

In the last two weeks, we have been pelted with celebrity deaths, and consequently, corresponding obituaries. Ed McMahon went, and Farah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson, and Billy Mays, and Karl Malden. . . . Each was fascinating in his or her own right, but in the public conscious they may immortally be considered together. I wonder why we received such an onslaught.

Whatever the reasons, I’m not a big fan of actors, but I know many people who are. If any of them read an obituary in the last few days and decided the form is wonderful, I would be thankful, because I would be vindicated. The obituary fan club would have grown. How joyful that would be. My mother would be pleased.

I guess I have to thank her for turning me on to the pleasures of obituary reading.

I don’t think I’m completely morbid; she is one of many people whose deaths I do not look forward to.

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