By Judith Geer
When I retired a few years ago, I did two things I always felt I had no time for or interest in while working: I began reading the comics and the obituaries in the daily paper. The comics – those bite-sized morsels of wisdom sugarcoated with humor – I’ll leave for another time. But, strange as it may sound, reading the obituaries truly fascinated me.
Recently NPR interviewed two obituary writers from the New York Times who talked about what many consider to be a morbid activity, writing literally the “last words” about deceased people. Contrary to what many would think, these reporters were proud of what they did, knowing that they were celebrating the lives of people whom they had never known or even heard of, and introducing them to readers who, in all probability, had also never known them.
Reading obituaries is like perusing little biographies in order to learn the central interests and deeds of others. Even reading obituaries of people I’ve known a long time has revealed things about them I’d never known.
Maybe they were too modest to talk about certain aspects of their lives when they were living, or maybe they simply didn’t realize that each piece of their life was like a flower and when all the pieces were drawn together into an obituary, quite an impressive bouquet of experiences would be assembled.
I am especially taken with the death announcements of people who died outside of Western New York. Usually these folks had grown up here or spent a significant part of their lives here and their survivors simply wanted to inform friends who still lived here of their family member’s demise.
Frequently, though, I think they want to acknowledge that this area meant something to their dead relative and the placement of the death notice in the local paper reflects that.
When our mother passed away, my sister and I ran a death notice in the Binghamton newspaper even though Mother hadn’t lived there for decades. We made sure to say that she’d been born in a house at 33 Chestnut St. and had graduated from Binghamton High School in the class of 1929. She had spoken of her birthplace warmly and often, and we wanted those reading about her there to know that a daughter of their city had held them in high esteem and had been a part of their collective history, even though she had been physically in absentia for a long time.
I am also cognizant of the deaths of so many Holocaust survivors and know that it won’t be long before the remaining victims of that unspeakable horror will all have left us.
As their obituaries reveal, however, many of them became advocates for human rights during the remainder of their lives. I marvel at the special kind of courage it took for them to bear witness to their experiences in ghettos and concentration camps, and how willingly so many of them did just that. Their obituaries remind us of their inspiring lives and also of the lives of so many millions of others from that time who were so brutally tossed away like dry leaves and never got an obituary.
The variety of people who are honored on the obituary page every day is compelling. We find there people we wished we had known as well as people we thought we’d known but after reading their obituaries, found out we never really had.
Obituaries certainly speak to us of the history of our community, but they also unmask the power each briefly stated life possesses to quicken our thoughts and embolden our sense of wonder.