Friday, October 24, 2008

From the Obits Page

". . . That must be an interesting job . . . " I get this a lot when I tell people that I edit obituaries at my local paper (the fact that I also edit letters to the editor seems to get lost in the shock of the word "obituary"). It has been an interesting job. I wrote a post about it right after I got hired. But in the months since, I've lost some of my sensitivity. It's still difficult for me to work directly with family members, and doing obituaries for young children and infants still gets me down, but for the most part, I've put a certain amount of emotional space between me and the people whose lives I'm reading about. Nevertheless, I still find myself thinking from time to time, "She is totally cool! I wonder if she'd . . . Lessie, she's dead. You're not going to be meeting her in the street anytime soon." Then I have a moment where I ponder the finality of death, sometimes do a mental hat tip to my mom and the other deceased loved ones in my life, and get back to looking for comma splices and misspelled words.

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.


Deepak Shinde said...

Veneration of the dead, I think, is present in every culture. It may be because we think the "Soul" sans the body can only be in the form of the purest essence.( Which many believe to be omniescent).Or worse still the dead person may be reborn (as Hindus/Budhists believe)and if he/she remembers the ill things one has said, may take revenge in his/her new "Avtar". Humans rarely have the courage to speak ill of a person to his face. Why take the risk with the dead, who knows what powers they are vested with.
Once we have the concept of "soul" out of the way, I think we will be more pragmatic in the Obits we publish, or for that matter, maybe we will just publish a notice of death, without resorting to any of the frills, that are strictly nonessential.

darlene (doc) said...

I am a very imperfect human being, and sucked as a mother when raising my first two (but that didn't stop me from taking on three more as stepchildren...and being even worse.)

My obit should say very little that is positive, yet I doubt anyone will want to remember those parts about me when I pass. It's probably more that they will feel sorry for me that I died, and in that sympathy only write the nice things. Also, since the grieving process is about the living, too, none of them will want to make a public confession at this point in time of the horrible lives they had because of me.

Then, later, as they deal with the various stages of grief, they can remember the more prominent parts of my personality and (because my children are nice people) they'll probably settle into a "she did the best she could, given her situation and her limitations". Which is probably not true, but that little white lie, along with the healing passage of time, will help them process their emotions about me.

I think it takes some strength of character to be so intimately involved in others' lives in your profession. The beauty of the written word is probably all that would save me from internalizing the pain of the community.

G said...

wow, this post brought back flashes of Card's Speaker for the Dead.
Ender, the speaker for the dead, didn't shy away from speaking out the hard-to-hear things about those who had passed on, and by doing so, it had greater power to heal the survivors.
also did you ever see The final Cut (with robin williams)? not precisely about the topic at hand, (and the movie wasn't what I expected it to be) but as an obits editor you may find it interesting.

darlene (doc) said...

I loved Orson Scott Card's Ender series. I always secretly wondered how he could be a devout LDS man with the weird things he wrote...and I learned much Portuguese from him as he blended his mission knowledge into the languages of the universe.

Death is a difficulty in our society, as we do not have it integrated into our lives as other cultures do.

I was estranged from my own parents/stepparents and when each of them passed I did not attend their funerals. I did end up taking a day off work for each one of them, as I needed a little time to process my emotions. I found that I felt sorry for them and also sorry for myself, and sorrier still for my children as I realized that the chain of misery had yet to be broken.

I've mentioned being an atheist. I wish I was still a believer, because I feel that faith would bring me peace at the concept of my own death, or the deaths of my loved ones. Without that faith, death seems so much like a threat rather than a friendly boarding call from Charon.

Shukr said...

Lessie, I'm sorry I've not been to see you for a long while. I don't think I even have any 'right' words to say about losing your Mum.
Sometimes condolences are so empty, but I'd like to sit with you with whatever emotions you have and just protect your space to have them -
I would imagine, like reading between the lines of the obituries, that they are many and sometimes conflicting.

Islamically we don't speak ill of the dead. What's done is done for them and if they were really mal intentioned they are suffering worse than we could say. We also wouldn't avoid speaking the truth about them where necessary though, whether it be pretty or no.
Likewise, we avoid eulogising the dead out of proportion to how the person actually was.

I guess it's just a continuation, actually, of how we'd speak of them if they were alive.

Love K

xJane said...

My sister, in acknowledgement I'm not Christian, told me that "even in ancient Rome" they said not to speak ill of the dead because their intercession is required in our daily life. But Card's Speaker for the Dead taught me that it's possible to speak the truth of the dead and not change one's memory so as not to offend some departed spirit. I'd like someone to speak my death when I go and remember me as a bitch with a firey temper. Hopefully one they loved or respected, but one who would not want memories to change simply because of her death.