DYING TO BE READ
It may seem maudlin to some, but I enjoy reading obituaries, especially those printed in The New York Times, which are considered a form of creative non-fiction. From cradle to grave, people’s lives fascinate me. Some might say I’m nosey, but I would prefer the word curious. I guess that’s why a fundraising career was such a perfect fit. Before I retired I got paid to talk to people. Now I do it for free.
My local paper publishes obituaries in a section called Life Tributes, an ambiguous title because it’s not clear to me whether the person is dead or alive. Generally speaking, these profiles are a statement of facts, often written by a family member, who doesn’t have the time or experience to be creative. However, recently a local life tribute really jumped out at me. Heaven gained an incredibly kind and wonderful angel when B.J. passed away last month. She is preceded in death by her ex-husband, members of her family, including a sister, a friend “Tiny,” and all the dogs she loved her entire life. How touching her obituary included her many four-legged friends, but how surprising the write-up mentioned her ex-husband.
If the obituaries in The Times were longer than the requisite 700 words, I’d call them page turners. One I consider memorable profiled an engaging gentleman from New York’s Upper East Side, whose raison d’être were frequent lunches at upscale Manhattan restaurants, like Le Cirque and Tavern on the Green. What stood out about these occasions were his special companions — all famous people, like actors, writers, artists, politicians, opera divas, etc., and he always picked up the tab. He and his guests were often the first to arrive and usually the last to leave, but always engrossed in deep conversations. Maybe these events were the basis for the famous Louis Mallé film “My Dinner with André.”
In my early fundraising days, I phoned a prospective donor to see whether we might continue our conversation about his making a large gift. When I asked the stranger, who answered the phone, if Mr. Smith was available, the man’s voice, in hushed tones, said, “Well, we were just leaving for his funeral because, I’m sorry to say, he died last week.” You could have knocked me over with a feather! After saying something appropriate (I hope) and putting down the phone, I flipped through a stack of unread newspapers until I found his obituary published the week before. From that day forward, reading obituaries became a daily habit, along with my morning coffee, because I didn’t want to make this faux pas again.
A recent obituary in The New York Times caught my attention when I read Keith Murdock, 74 dies: Enigmatic rugby player. Describing a rugby player as enigmatic seemed unusual, so I was eager to read on. In the piece Murdock was referred to as the Rugby version of Bigfoot. “Murdock remained the only All Black (a New Zealand national rugby team) to have been sent home from an international tour. But Murdoch, in fact, did not go home. Issued with a ticket back to New Zealand, he got off the plane in Singapore and diverted to Australia — to the City of Darwin and from there he virtually disappeared — “Into the Bush” as the Australians say,” and that’s how the moniker Big Foot was acquired. His legend was so big that he became the subject of a play, “his legend growing in inverse proportion to the confirmed sightings of him.” Click on this link to read Murdoch’s entertaining obituary in its entirety.
Obituaries teach readers a little about a lot: history, art, medicine, sports, psychology, geography, technology, philosophy, etc. Reading Philip Roth’s two page obituary reminded me of the impact Alexander Portnoy’s complaints had on me as an impressionable young reader, and how books like Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” prompted me to explore the 1960s counter culture, since Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters lived just down the road from me in Northern California. I suspect many of Roth and Wolf’s popular books will become best sellers again after people read their obituaries and are reminded what literary giants left Earth this month.
The New York Times has a staff of experienced obituary writers, and Margalit Fox, one their best, is retiring in June after 24 years. “Someone has to do it,” Margalit writes, “but while they have to be done, they also have to be done right.” Researching is a huge part of the job. https://newrepublic.com/article/142044/art-new-york-times-obituary
Death is not a subject I dwell on since I don’t like thinking about things over which I have no control. However, like the obituaries I enjoy reading, I hope mine is an accurate portrayal, written in the style of creative nonfiction, that focuses on a colorful life rather than a dreary one. If my obituary included all the pets I’ve owned, I’d do a little jig, but if it included the ex-husbands I’ve disowned, I’d turn over in my grave.