Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Life In A Recycle Bin

They catch my eye every time. I try to turn the page, but I can't. It's like driving past the scene of an accident and having macabre sirens beckon me. I scan the faces first. Most are old but some have a photo portraying a more vigorous time. A beautiful time. A time of hope. A time when they anticipated the future. Just not this far into it. And as if this section of the paper isn't gloomy enough, occasionally there's the increased heaviness of a young life abruptly cut short. I'm forced to push my tea and toast aside and lay the leadened paper on the table.

Today it's a sailor who served during World War II. There's a watchmaker and jeweler. A board member of the Women's University Club in Seattle. A building contractor. One was a Peace Corps volunteer who served in Morocco. One woman spent her entire lifetime on a farm. Another was a graduate of the Kinman Business University. Willing or not, all walks of life are represented. 

In spite of, and as a testament to, all these endings, life goes on. A seemingly perpetual motion machine that begins anew in countless ways every day, confidently passing the stardust within us from one life to another and unconcerned with the gamble that such passing on may not take.
Browsing through the abbreviated stories that do their respective subjects little justice, I wonder, “Is this it? Is this all there is? We live, we die, and if we're lucky there's a notice in the paper informing others of our existence? ” Reading on, I find the answer lies within.

There was a husband. There was a wife. There were siblings, children, cousins, in-laws, friends, neighbors, fellow worshipers, workmates, recipients of their benevolence, and many others. The existence of each person echoes across the valleys that lie between the mountains of lives they touched.

I turn the page and a faint, “I was here,” is muffled by the rustling of the paper. Yet for some the reverberations never cease.


Spokane Al said...

I am also an obituary reader. I find many of the stories moving in that many have led very interesting, fulfilling lives and I kind of feel I owe them that spare minute or two to give them their due, with my attention at least.

Judith said...

I also read the obits in the Olympian. Recently there was one for an elderly German lady who was a faithful member of the White Rose Society... I had read elsewhere about the young founders of this group who bravely distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets and were caught and executed. I wrote a note to the family... I'm sure this woman lived her life with great courage and I was inspired.


Anonymous said...

Then let's keep dancing...


Anonymous said...

And then I went to a big election
The end of politics as usual
Change we could believe in!

But, after the votes were counted
The drones launched
The banksters and torturers rewarded
And the people lost homes and jobs

I stood there, shivering, as Beyonce lipsynced, and I thought:

Is that all there is to Barrack Obama?

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?

Pat S said...

A great, thoughtful, eloquently-written post, Hank. Reading the obits has been part of my daily routine for a few years now. I don't always read in detail, sometimes I only have time to skim. But the excercise has become important, in terms of grounding myself, at the start of each day. Just taking a minute to adjust my mind to what's important in life.

Writing my mom's obit this past year has kind of taken things to a new level, though. Now I look at obits with a much greater efficiency in terms of understanding how and why things were written and the humoungous life stories and the immense pain and joy that are behind each one of these short "articles".

I'm a dinosaur for sure, but IMO, there's nothing in online obits and guest books that even comes close to matching the gravity and significance of print obits. I'm really glad this medium has survived, and I think, thrives.

Private, family grieving is an important part of the process, but there's also this other part, about making a public statement, that's a really big deal. The internets are so crowded and non-respectful, but the paper still continues to be a place where family can take comfort in knowing that a word about their loved one will garner a moment of respect and consideration as part of a time-honored tradition amisdst this fast-paced and ever-changing time in which we live.

Anonymous said...

Obits can be very interesting, and definitely still provide a revenue stream to cash-strapped papers (Spokesman obits run $150-1000). Of course, obits don't represent all life stories, since they don't cover all deaths. I've also read some that I knew to be rather disrespectful themselves, not mentioning a gay partner, for example. I read them for what they leave out, as well as what they include.

Newspapers used to employ obit writers but today's obits are written by families, or even the deceased before dying--in other words, they are more like facebook or a blog post than they resemble old fashioned obits. (Mostly an improvement, imho.) In fact, the copy is often the same online and in print. The Spokesman itself publishes its obits online.

I like paper as a medium, but, like most people, I haven't bought a paper Spokesman in years. Printed obits may persist, but paper papers are dead. Rest in peace.

Mike Parks said...

Hank, beautifully written. Thank you.

The Seattle Times typically has three dense pages of obits every Sunday. At the very least, I try always to skim them, scanning for familiar faces and names.

I think of reading obits as a way of paying respect, sort of like paying a visit to the cemetery.

As a newshound, when I open the New York Times daily, I almost always turn first to the obits. I love to clip obits of strong women to share with the strong women in my life.

The newsweekly The Economist publishes just one obituary in each issue, on the last page before the back cover.

As you would expect, Economist subjects are mostly the cream of the crop, top people in politics, the arts and sciences. But the Economist also gives scoundrels their due. The one thing you can take to the bank is that each week's obit will be well written.

Uncle Mike