My dad loved to read the obituaries. He used to sit in his broad wing-back chair with a gin and tonic at his elbow and peruse them like some fathers would peruse the sports page. This always disconcerted me. Stories of death are disconcerting. We only want to know what someone died of so we know what to avoid. And his reading all those stories of death was depressing.
When I told him maybe he should try a nice human interest piece from the Bay Area section, he said: I’m already reading the most interesting human story. This is the best kind, right here. The real stories.
But I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t take a second look at the obituaries. In fact, I avoided them. But then, when I was younger than I should have been, I had to write one. For my dad. And I sat and thought, now what did he love about reading obituaries? He loved the story.
So I didn’t just say what he did for his job, or where to send the research money. I tried to tell the story of his life. A story that other people, even people he never knew, would enjoy. A story about a lifelong painter and sculptor who pulled himself out of the projects in D.C., through a war in Vietnam, to end up a lawyer who helped win a years-long class action mesothelioma suit for a group of dying men and the families they were about to leave behind. Before he left, too.
Since I wrote his obituary, I've begun reading other people’s obituaries. And I’ve begun to see why he read them. The best ones tell of an unadorned, imperfect life. They tell the brightest moments, but also the darkest. Because for many of us, there will be accomplishments, but they will be wedged between the work and the children and fixing the toilet. For most of us, the impression of our lives will be only that--an impression. But it will be ours.
In this age of fewer newspapers, we might have to look harder to find obituaries of just any human. But it's worth it--maybe even to pick up a copy of The Last Word. Because obituaries are, as my dad told me, our most real stories. And those are the best kind.