When my mom died, I actually got to write the obituary. It wasn't difficult. Most papers have a format for their obituaries and after reading one or two obituaries in my folks' local paper, I was able to churn out a suitable piece based on the information my dad gave me. The pattern usually goes like this: Name, age, place of residence, date of death, place of death, date of birth, place of birth, parents' names, schools attended, military service, date of marriage, notation of divorces, hobbies, we'll miss you, survivors, folks who died before, service times, the end. There are variations on the theme, but that's the gist of it.
It's the "hobbies" and "we'll miss you" parts that are the most interesting to me. These are the couple of sentences (at least in the cheap obits) that ostensibly tell you the most about the deceased (in the expensive obits, the whole damn thing might center around these two sections because the family is paying a truckload of money for that space, but I'll visit that later). These sentences usually go like this, "John/Jane Doe enjoyed cross-stitching, skiing, hunting, cooking, but especially, s/he loved her/his family. John/Jane was the kindest, most loving, patient mother/father/grandma/grandpa and spent his/her entire life doing everything for his/her family."
It was my experience writing my mother's obituary that clued me in to what these sentences actually show: the person that they wanted the deceased to be or the person that they think the deceased should appear to be to the public. That sounds pretty cynical, huh? But ultimately, it's true. We as a society are loathe to introduce ambivalence or nuance into our memories of our dead--at least in public. I wrote similar sentences into my mother's obituary.
But what troubles me about this practice is the extended pain it can actually cause. My mother was kind and patient. My mother was emotionally manipulative and judgmental. My mother was rock solid in her beliefs. My mother doubted her abilities and worthiness. My mother taught me a lot. My mom neglected to teach me some very important things. My mom loved me. My mom didn't love me enough to accept me for who I became. My mom sacrificed a lot for me. My mom took my decisions personally and was offended by them. My mom had an enormous capacity for love and compassion. My mom saw the world in black and white. Do you see what I'm getting at? I'm sure these same sentences could be applied to any number of the people whose lives I read about every day. The only thing they all have in common is that they all had the best of intentions.
But as it is, they were all human. And we humans have a tendency to hurt those we love even when our intentions are good. When we codify and make public only the idealized version of our loved ones, I think we do ourselves a disservice. We make it taboo to discuss the more troubling aspects of our interactions with these people and therefore interfere with the healing process.
I confess I'm somewhat at a loss to understand why we do this (and I'm totally unaware of how other cultures speak about their dead, anything anyone has to add in that respect would be welcomed). Do we feel bad talking disparagingly about someone when they're no longer there to defend themselves? Are we too overcome with grief when we write the obituary to see our loved ones in all their mottled glory? Are the believers among us afraid to face our loved ones later when we've been talking badly about them behind their backs? Are we afraid of how others will perceive our own capacity for love and compassion assuming we spoke about the less ideal aspects of our loved ones? Are we relieved that we no longer have to remember the painful things our loved ones (however inadvertently) inflicted on us? Do we, perhaps, welcome death as the way to bury not only the corpse, but also the painful associations we had with that person?
A penny for your thoughts (not really--I'm broke :). But please, I'd be interested to hear what you think.