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Morbid? Not really. Deeply curious, ever seeking wisdom about what makes up a life, whenever it ends, I read obituaries. They’re the profiles written past deadline.
As someone forever seduced by others’ stories — whether covering Queen Elizabeth or interviewing convicted felons — I read the obituaries. Not just the official ones, which, if you read The New York Times, are almost always about men. I also read many of the paid ones, the ones in a font so small it’s almost illegible. That’s where the heart-breaking stories appear.
The Globe and Mail, one of the papers for whom I’ve been a reporter, runs a regular column called Lives Lived, obits written by friends, family or colleagues, often about civilians, non-celebrities, the kind of people we all take for granted and know only as a high-school teacher or next door neighbor. I find these tributes lovely, and often deeply moving in their detail. Here’s one about a woman whose husband ran a taxi company. More than anything, more so than taxes, death is the ultimate democracy.
Today there are two women, 47 and 48, whose death notices in The New York Times, my local paper, hit me hard.
Rebecca Lipkin, a fellow journo I never met but who clearly had a kick-ass career as a broadcast journalist and news producer for WABC, ABC World News Tonight and ABC Nightline, worked in the U.S. and London, where she died at 48 of breast cancer. She was not married and had no kids. She could be me. She could one of the many ambitious, driven, talented women I know and have met along the way of my journalism career who perhaps kept postponing love or domesticity for the surer gains of work, who consider airports and international carriers the equivalent of the family minivan, whose life is spent chasing the next great story and making sure it’s told well.
Rynn Williams, 47, a poet, and mother of three, died at her home in Brooklyn “of accidental causes.” She could be any one of us. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death for Americans, with 121,599 who died this way in 2006. (The top four, in order: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease.)
I read obits because so many strangers fascinate me. I read obits because I want to hear what others say about them and how they are remembered by those who knew and loved them best, not just those wealthy, powerful or famous enough to have a reporter call up and formally interview their colleagues or family. My favorite paid obit, so far, was of an older woman who died in Florida, clearly a woman of means who had not worked. “She’d shake the ice for anyone,” her family wrote. I can’t forget this detail, of a woman who so loved to entertain that a cocktail shaker helped define her sense of generosity and fun. I wish I’d known her. So often, I read an obit of a non-famous, non-wealthy person I’ve never heard of and think: “Wish I’d met you. What a cool life. How loved you were!”
Below Rynn Williams’ obit today is that of Molly Wolff, 89 who died only three months after her husband, Louis. “During the last years of his life, she never left his side, singing to him and holding his hand late into the night.”
That’s great writing, the kind of telling detail every would-be journo needs to read and remember. That’s a woman to celebrate.
What would your obit say about you? What would you want it to say? Who would you most like to write it?