Saturday, March 28, 2020

10 ways to bring death notices to life

The house I grew up in was not very sports-oriented. My mom and dad subscribed to both the Sudbury Star newspaper as well as the bigger, national Globe&Mail and a lot of other reading material, but sports pages were mostly left untouched. To this day I wouldn’t know where to begin interpreting hockey or baseball statistics.

But ask me about obits.

When I was a kid, death notices in the Sudbury Star got read aloud. Some dads talked about whose team was playing in the finals. My dad pointed out that some of his older friends had started going to church again because they were cramming for the finals.

Death is big in my family. Many of our best family trips were to out of town funerals. Some of my favourite relatives are dead but I don’t hold it against them. 

These days, some of my friends are getting to an age at which they’re drawn to that part of the news we used to call “hatched, matched and dispatched” (born, married and died) and they might need some help figuring out not so much who's on first but more like, who's made it home.

So I thought I’d draw on my years of Irish Catholic experience and offer the following “10 tips for getting the most out of the obits.”

I promise they’ll help you understand the arcane, subtle and nuanced language of death notices and more importantly, they’ll save you time and that's something you have less and less of. 

Here’s what you have to know.

Tip One: First, check to see if there's one about you. If not, you can proceed to step two. (That’s a Carter Dad joke I committed to memory before my First Communion.)

Tip Two: In most big-city newspapers, people die in alphabetical order. (Ibid Dad Jokes.)

Tip Three: Not everybody who dies get their name in the paper. Obituaries cost money. This is important. With the rising cost of death notices, it would seem death is increasingly restricted to people with, like, dough. Folks, for instance, who attended fancy schools. But that is not the case. Just because their name’s not in the paper doesn’t mean a person has escaped the inevitable. Like my brother Tom says, “death rate’s same everywhere. One per capita.”  And neither does it mean fancy schools are bad for you.

Tip Four: Believe everything you read in an obit, but know that it’s only part of the story.  Obituaries typically only accentuate the dead person’s achievements and heroic past-times like building wells in Guatemala or leading the Canadian Olympic team to its first Ballroom Dance bronze. They elide over things like the “Frank-liked-to-spend-his-time-reading-and-writing-about-death-notices” type of stuff. Or “Uncle Pete’s breath would knock a buzzard off a manure wagon.” (Okay, Op.Cit. Dad Jokes.)

Tip Five: Death notices are where old thesauruses go to die. Even though death notices are about bucket kicking, the word die rarely makes it to the page. These days, people mostly “ pass.”  Yup. Pass. Call me old fashioned but I generally associate passing with something people want to do.

Tip Six: Then again. I remember visiting Salt Lake City, Utah, where every second citizen is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; a.k.a.,  a Mormon. The obit section of that newspaper (yes, I checked) sparkled with glee because when those people die, they get sent with Amazon-prime efficiency right into Jesus’ arms. The Salt Lake City obits had the same cheery optimism as a high-school yearbook. What do I know? Maybe there is something to that passing thing.

Tip Seven:  I bet the person who came up with “passing” as another word for “dying” was the same guy who called a miserable fifth year of high school a “victory lap.”

Tip Eight: Recently, there was a death notice in the Toronto paper for a man in his ‘50s who died after waging a long battle. I’m pretty sure the obit writer missed a few words.  It didn’t say “a long battle with disease.”  Just “a long battle.”  What I’m hoping is, the guy went down after a long battle with, I don’t know, an army of Huns or something. Which reminds me:  When I was working in the newspaper business,  I used to get perturbed when it seemed proof readers including me took more care with  stories about city politics than with death notices because the obits were the only part of the paper that people ever cut out and handed down through the generations, with some going on to live forever as bookmarks. Typos in death notices can cause inter-generational trauma and are very irrigating.

Tip Nine: I just realized that I've been writing about death notices in newspapers. Few people I know under 45 every open a real paper-y newspaper.  

Tip Ten: I’ve saved the second best part for last.  I’ve long maintained that the obituaries are the most reassuring and positive parts of any newspaper because the stories are happy accounts of lives richly lived by ordinary people who go when they’re supposed to, felled by causes that are mostly quite natural. It’s in  the obituaries where you read about great moms, generous dads, whacked but fun-loving aunts and single uncles who sneak you Southern Comfort---immortal souls who never make the news until this very moment. The death notices are happy places and I should add that these days, they’re composed with with such care and show-offiness that they frequently make for some of the best reading around. Yes, even death notices are better than they used to be.

And the best part of this whole schmozzle?  The best part is, if you’re reading the death notices, you still haven’t “passed.”  If this is what failure feels like, count me in.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your wise and wonderful perspective on the inevitable ending to our shared human condition.
    And if I may add one of the more memorable epitaphe that has been logged in my gray matter- an inscription adorning a headstone in a cemetery in Thurmond, Maryland , " Here lies an atheist. All dressed up and no place to go ".