An Age-Old Fascination With Obituaries
I see dead people.
No, I am not channeling Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.
But I am reading the obituaries that appear in the printed edition of this paper and pop up on the Ipswich Local News website.
It is well documented that people of a certain age often read the obituaries first — either because they fear they’ll know the dearly departed or to reaffirm they’re not yet among them.
My fascination with obituaries is not a recent sign of maturity. It pretty much began as soon as I learned to read.
In addition to the Chronicle and the Globe, our household was graced by the weekly arrival of the Sunday Times. The obits in the Times were literary gems written by some of the best scribes in the business. What better way to learn about the world’s movers and shakers, from Winston Churchill to Dag Hammarskjold to Eleanor Roosevelt?
A Summer Job
As it turned out, this was good practice for my first journalism job, a summer stint at the Chronicle. As a cub reporter my initial assignments included writing up birth and engagement announcements, weddings, and deaths. I had little enthusiasm for births and engagements.
As for weddings, I was taught by my editor that “all brides are beautiful” and that “a groom [as contrasted with a bridegroom] is someone who cares for a horse.” The implication was that a bride should in no way be associated with anything equine.
I dutifully took my editor’s advice and churned out serviceable announcements and wedding coverage.
When it came to obituaries, however, I lingered longer, often trying to fill out the spaces between the sparse death notices sent out by local funeral homes. Sometimes, the family would augment the information on their own; at other times, especially if I knew them, I would reach out to add a bit of color and context to a life lived.
My stint as a summer reporter ended, and, as a journalist, I moved on to other topics, everything from politics to travel, finance, and restaurant reviews.
Qualities Of A Good Obituary
I did, however, have occasion to write several more obituaries, beginning with those of my parents. To my mind, the key to writing a good obit isn’t its length or the ability to cram in every activity the individual partook of during a lifetime. What you want to accomplish is more subtle: You want to capture the person’s essence.
For my mom, Nancy Waite, it was nursing, specifically the time she spent as a nurse in the Army during World War II. It was not just that she met our dad at that time. I specifically homed in on her work in a specialized Army hospital that treated U.S. air crews severely burned while conducting missions over Europe. It defined the compassion and dedication that also permeated her life as a mother and as a nana to her grandchildren.
With my dad, Dr. Robert Waite, I touched only lightly on his school and finance committee activities. Instead, the focus was on his attempts to make a dental office, a fearsome place for many, safe and lighthearted. He would sing, hum tunes, and gab away, all to make people more comfortable.
He also told me that, on occasion, especially in the early days, he accepted a bushel of clams or three or four lobsters as payment from patients that were short of cash. And he treated nuns for free.
Again, details that help to get beyond the stuff of job titles or CV entries. Most people have attributes or stories that help define their essence. The trick is to ease it out of them without making them feel like you are conducting an exit interview.
You can, of course, carry things too far.
Bad Whiskey And A Tormented Brother
As the oldest of six children, I must confess I have occasionally fallen into the trap of tormenting my siblings. In this instance, it involved my youngest brother, Tom. Fairly or unfairly, Tom is seen within our family as something of a hypochondriac. You mention a disease, any disease, and Tom begins to develop symptoms. He has called at Death’s door so often that they no longer leave out the welcome mat.
So, about ten years ago, in an evil moment I blame on bad whisky, I wrote his obituary and circulated it among family members. Its title?
“Tom Waite: Finally Dead.”
As you can imagine, it went downhill from there. Only later did I realize that I had made a huge strategic error. Tom is eight years younger than me. He also lives a far healthier lifestyle, exercising and embracing kale and other items I consider inedible. I am more of a fried-clam, sirloin-steak kind of guy (washed down with scotch on the rocks). Which means he will undoubtedly be writing my obituary.
Cicero wrote that, “The life of the dead consists in being present in the minds of the living.”
I wonder if he had a younger brother.