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Everyone Deserves An Obituary

October 7, 2020

Readers to this blog know I often comment on and share very well-written and informative obituaries. The world is full of interesting people, who have lived lives of either grandeur or hardship, world acclaim, or of little notice, but when death comes they are equal with an obituary. After all, obituaries are not about death as much as they are an affirmation of a life lived.

For a number of years, a fellow blogger would often comment on the number of words the notables around the globe garnered from The New York Times when their obituary was published. But with each obit, be it a world-known figure, or a small-name singer with a one-hit-wonder the death itself was usually just one or two sentences. Perhaps complications from surgery or a long-term progressive disease. The remainder of the paragraphs in the obit, however, was about the life lived. As it should be.

So when a death occurs, and an obituary is not written and published, people are left asking obvious questions. The first one is clearly what happened to the responsibility to make sure history does not forget a person. The second question revolves around respect for the deceased.

About a year ago I became what I consider to be the custodian to a raft of newspapers from the days when one was published in Hancock, Wisconsin, my hometown. Those papers which fill plastic tubs span the decades. As I slowly make my way in reading them I am always commenting on the style writers used to construct the stories.

While doing some research on the 1918 Pandemic for my podcast, Doty Land, I ran across an obituary in the December 20, 1918 edition of the Hancock News for Mary Nellie Parker. She was born in 1892, but died as a result of a short illness of influenza-pneumonia. In her life, she became an apprentice at Borden Pharmacy. “There, by strict application to her work and studies, she educated herself sufficiently to pass the required examination for an assistant pharmacist.”

The obituary concludes with these lines.

One of Mary Parker’s ideals of life was to be helpful, and by her own efforts she accomplished more than thousands of young people do who are much more favored by health and wealth. Her faithful service rendered and progress made are well worthy of praise and emulation. The sorrow is general that she could not have been longer spared life on earth.”

The obituaries in the yellowed pages might have names of people long associated with my town, or ones that I have never heard of before. But each in their own way brings a person off the page and back to the era where they lived and laughed. The power of an obit is not to remind one of death, but rather of a life.

There are times people who are eccentric or lacking in some degree of self-worth might tell others they do not want an obituary written upon their death. I have known one such occasion locally of a person who made such a statement. But upon the person’s death, I was pushing for an obit to be written as it conveys an honor and statement that the person was worthy of such a write-up. The obituary, in that case, was written and published in a local paper.

Generations from now will desire genealogical roadmaps, insight into a particular era, knowledge about what mattered to people in this or that town, village, or city. Researchers and historians comb through such documents and publications and use sources such as obituaries for an understanding of the past. So to not write and publish an obituary for a person is not only lacking in respect for the deceased but short-sighted for the longer view in how such documentation can be fruitfully used in the future.

And so it goes.

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