February 09, 2009
Obituaries: A Sunrise Seminar in the Little Chain of Being
At six o’clock, if our neighbor Billy had set his alarm the night before, the daily Chicago Tribune would arrive on our doorstep, and after a quick snap of its binding rubber band, it was laid out on the kitchen table for morning inspection. My father was hawking oil to auto dealers in those days, and was out of the house by half past. A quick glance at the headlines while he drank down two cups of black coffee was all the time he had. My mother black coffee in hand went straight for the crossword puzzle. Despite having to put her army of academic learners in the field by seven-thirty, she got a head start on what would be her little literary companion in a day otherwise marked by dirty laundry and an uncooperative Swiss steak.
My Nana was the convener of another set of inquiries. You could say she conducted inquests in camera into the death and survival of all those and their kin who passed through the morning’s obituaries. By working methodically through the Tribune accounts of the deceased that had caught the editor’s eye, as well as by careful scrutiny of the death notices placed for a fee by the next of kin, my Nana could chart the changes in the human geography around her.
For us, following the Cubs was a sacred duty, and the sports pages offered the material for daily reflections. More sacred still among us were the dead, and it was in their service that my Nana would assemble her daily inquiries and bring together the several lay jurors among her grandchildren to whom she could submit her true bills. Not for nothing I grew up calling the obituary pages the Irish sports pages.
Nana was capable of conducting her inquests alone if we were forced to go to school, for she had something of a standing jury in her sister, my mother, and my aunt – all of whom she would see in person or contact by phone every day with the her findings and suggested judgments. Face-to-face kitchen-table meetings were run around preparing and drinking tea. Nothing special, mind you: just Lipton’s in a pot with milk and sugar served on the side.
When I read those obituary pages with my Nana, no world could have seemed bigger and more inviting – even if whole lives were compressed typically into less than 200 words per deceased.
What choice words! Birthplace, age, residence, family relations, marriage relations, education, religious affiliation, as well as race if you knew how to read it.
The deceased were a changing cast of characters that included everyone from the neighborhood. There were politicians, great and small, police captains, fire chiefs, beat cops, firefighters, teachers, street cleaners, small business people, and all of the neighbors who ran the local Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and such in and throughout my Nana’s world.
There were the neighbors, the fellow church members, and Nana’s “gals” from the church bridge club that put together a rubber or two twice a month while running a bake sale or two once a year.
There were the miscreants – those naughty, foolish or just unlucky – who fell before their time or who endured an ugly, socially discreditable fall. Their deeds were seldom the subject of their obituary. Nana would make the connections, such as “this boy in trouble because he fell in with the brother-in-law of a small Irish gang leader who had lost control over the rackets in the neighborhood,” and we would apply the law. As a bunch, the tragic endings of the miscreants were never justified – there were not so many really, really evil people in those days I guess – but rather lamented. Since all pain and death were finally God’s will, the sinner could not be responsible, anymore than it was finally Oedipus’ fault that he had slept in the wrong bed.
This gave our morning inquests a certain moral bearing. We were taking life’s morning temperature and checking its social reflexes. A man who outlived his wife was interesting. Was he a banker perchance and she a baker? Bankers’ hours, bakers’ hours? How did that shanty Irish boy climb up high enough to run a downtown law firm? Making it into the local Jesuit-recruited Catholic elite in high school would be an obvious inference from his obit. Since death was final, one had at least one part of the reason how or why somebody had finished out as they had. And what a nice sample: all those in a given place that had died at about the same time. They were little lessons, but in a nice beaten-down way, bite-down real.
If anything, I think I enjoy reading obituaries even more now, though I must admit my passion for death notices died when my Nana did twenty-five years ago.
The obits are still my first read. The New York Times has even obliged me by setting up my on-line front page with a direct hit on the obits before all else. The Boston Globe may be slouching toward oblivion, but they now devote at least two and often three pages to obits alone. The paper had won an award a decade back or more for doing obits on ordinary people, in addition to the obligatory write-ups of the rich and famous.
Obits have changed a bit. Who one is living with when you die, which child was had with whom, and what number husband “Barry” was are more carefully put forth. Nobody any more apparently has boy friends, deadbeat spouses, or estranged children and other kin who don’t deserve mention. Notes include speculation and sometimes gossip. Editors also seem unfazed about running pictures of the deceased taken forty, even fifty years before their deaths. They also seem to think that the dead had the foresight of the living. Seldom does a public figure escape judgment as to the value of their most important deeds.
My purposes may have changed too. I look to see how “everyone” has turned out, as if the obit page were one big college class reunion scrapbook. I measure what I have done with what the dead have done, finding consolation or condemnation given my morning’s psychic state.Yet, tracing out those lifelines daily enables me to recognize the remarkable achievements of others passing before me, as well as find a bit of thread for myself.
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