Obituaries are tales of ships that have sailedPublished 11:14am Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Column: Tales From Exit 22
Dick Clark died.
He was a very old teenager. He was our best hope of someone living to be 200. He was Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray in which Dorian sold his soul for perpetual youth. His aging was restricted to his portrait. Quite a story.
Many yearn for perpetual youth. Bob Dylan sang, “May you stay forever young.” Woody Allen said that he doesn’t want to achieve immortality through his work. He wants to achieve immortality by not dying. He won’t accomplish that. Even though everyone is dying to get there, no one is in a cemetery because he had a coupon.
We joke about it, “Did you find a job yet?”
“No, but there are plenty of people yearning for my services.”
“I know. When will they be held?”
“Did you hear that a plane crashed at the Bath Cemetery?”
“Was anyone injured?”
“The pilot wasn’t hurt and he claimed to have been alone in the plane, but the authorities recovered 147 bodies.”
A neighbor said he wasn’t afraid of dying except on his birthday and payday.
Do you read the comics before you read the obituaries? You should.
Growing up, the comics section was referred to as “the funnies” or “the funny papers.” When bidding someone adieu, I said, “See you in the funny papers.”
I read the funny papers first. I think giggles and guffaws are a healthy tonic. I believe that reading the comics before I read the obituaries will grant me more time before I’m in the obituaries.
Many people read the obituaries first because it’s a good day if they don’t see their names there. Some folks count the obituaries in the belief that people die in threes.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading the obituaries lately — after polishing off the comics, of course. I read of the deaths of the old and of those, gasp, even younger than I am. Life is evanescent. Ephemeral. By the time people start getting the hang of life, they are gone. Some obituaries present faces of the deceased as young persons and others offer images captured not long before their demise. Some are professional portraits while others are from a group photo, a high school yearbook, or taken at a drugstore photo booth. It doesn’t matter. When a person goes to all the trouble of dying, he or she can use whatever photo he or she wants.
I read obituaries. Each is a celebration of life, but sorrow seeps in. I read those of whom I know first. Then I read the others and often find myself wishing I’d have known the dearly departed.
My wife’s aunt Ingeborg Rugroden was a frugal scrapbooker. She spent years teaching in a one-room country school. That enterprise taught her that she couldn’t always have the whole enchilada. A little bit is better than nada. She cut things from newspapers and pasted them into books. Not scrapbooks. Outdated schoolbooks. Some clippings were obituaries — accounts of ships that had sailed. In her scrapbooks fashioned from recycled tomes such as, The New Spelling Goals, some obituaries put the hay down where the cows could get at it. One claimed the deceased was a drunken scoundrel. No barnacles were scraped. The obit all but said the world was well rid of him. It reminded me of the widow who wanted her husband buried face down in case he tried to dig his way out.
Obituaries are backstories. They can be insightful or mysterious. Succinct or rambling. Precise as “He liked cheese.” Some offer a wave as though the deceased had just met the reader driving a pickup truck on a gravel road.
Everyone has a story. It takes a lifetime to build an obituary. I love how words work, but no matter how they lean against one another, they cannot fully describe a life.
It’s not my job to judge anyone. Obituaries aren’t report cards of lives. There’s no reason to say, “He could have done better had he just applied himself.”
There are many ways to lose a life. Death is but one. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time to be born and a time to die. Death is a horse at every door. Eventually, everyone rides. The hourglass of time may be an urn.
There is much more to each story than can be told in an obituary. Like a small piece from a broken mirror, an obituary reflects only a tiny portion of a life.
Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.