“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” grumbled Mark Twain in 1897, having learned that the New York Journal was preparing his obituary.
The newspaper had confused the author, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, with his cousin, James Clemens, who was the one actually lying at death’s door. For the author of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and other classics, it would be another 13 years before an obituary would be in order.
I haven’t taken any surveys, but my guess would be that the “obit” section is one of the most frequently read parts of the newspaper. Some papers list the names of those deceased on the front page. An old friend quips that he consults page one when he wakes up each morning, checking the obituaries to see if his name is there before he goes to the trouble of getting up.
My mother-in-law lived with us for the last year of her life, after having spent 88 years as a resident of Gibson County in Southern Indiana. She continued her long-time subscription to the South Gibson Star-Times to keep up with events in her hometown, but I think it had a lot to do with the obituary section. That seemed to be the first thing she checked each week. She would read aloud those names she recognized. Many times they were people she had grown up with in Princeton. She would read the obituary to herself several times. Then she would grow quiet. I know she was recalling precious memories and lamenting the loss of still another person in her dwindling group of old friends.
Most of us scan the obits on our way to the comics or sports or business sections of the paper. Morbid curiosity? I don’t think so. Life is fleeting. Death, too. Obituaries (“arbitraries” the old-timers call them) often run only one day. Miss that day and we might not learn of the passing of an old friend.
Well-known people, of course, get full write-ups in the newspaper. George H. W. Bush, Bob Hope, Fred Rogers, Gregory Peck, Katherine Hepburn, Prince and scores of other famous people earned front-page obituaries. The newspapers already had “advance” obits ready to go.
For the passing of average people, there is much less fanfare. It is, as Jack Webb might say, “Just the facts, ma’am.” The deceased was born, had a job and family, and will have services at the designated hour. It’s pretty cut and dried. Some newspapers, for a fee, will allow more space. A man named Charles P. “Pappaw” Anderson died recently in Connersville at the age of 84. His obituary described him as a good Christian who was a “blue-collar, hard-working man.” He was an avid sports fan who rooted for the Connersville Spartans, Cincinnati Bengals, Indiana Pacers, and Purdue Boilermakers. He enjoyed years of walking down Waterloo Road and very much loved his dogs, whose names were Lainie, Lainie 2, and Dolly. His “write-up” gave readers a feeling for who “Pappaw” really was. As Marvin Siegel of the New York Times has written, a good obituary should “tell us not only about who died, but who lived.”
Some people have had the disconcerting experience of reading their own obit in the newspaper. Mark Twain averted this macabre experience, but Alfred Nobel didn’t.
Nobel was the inventor of powerful explosives used in warfare. In 1888, his brother Ludvig died while staying in France. The French newspaper confused him with Alfred and ran the headline, “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead.”) Alfred, who was actually a shy, idealistic man, was devastated to see how he would be remembered by the world. Inspired by this bizarre mistake, he established the now famous Nobel Peace Prize, along with awards for excellence in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, and literature. Sure enough, when he really did die in 1896, these were the accomplishments headlining his obituary.
It would be beneficial to society if newspapers could write “advance” obituaries on all of us the way they do celebrities. That way we could drop in on the editor from time to time to see how we are looking to posterity. It would give us a fair chance to do what we could to prompt a rewrite before the final deadline.