Monday, August 31, 2009

The Dead Beat

When my parents sit down in the morning to read the newspaper, the first thing my Dad looks at is the sports page; my mom's first look is at the obituaries. She grew up in the Ottawa Valley, where everyone knows everyone, and most people of her age consider it incredibly poor form to miss a death and to not send a note to the family. My Dad and I of course have given her much grief over the years, but her habit has rather taken hold of me, although, I confess, really only for people I don't know but know about.

There have been some really significant deaths of late. In addition to Michael Jackson (a topic I'll not deal with here) there have been journalists--Don Hewitt and Walter Cronkite--as well as that of a political icon. Despite some pretty lurid episodes in his past, Ted Kennedy did live to respectable age and died in what can only be called a dignified way, so the tabloids have pretty much stayed away.

But John Broder wrote a beautiful, balanced piece about Kennedy last Wednesday, and one of the paragraphs absolutely took my breath away, because he captured his subject in the space of three sentences:

"He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life,instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy figure who perserved, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy."

If you were not a fan of the late Senator, this might seem a bit over the top, but it is a perfectly crafted paragraph. In her enormously entertaining book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries, Marilyn Johnson compares the obit to the Haiku. There are expectations of the writer--the facts, for one--but Johnson argues that the form imposed on writers makes the obituary the most creative of all reporting. She loves the English, especially, and at one point on a visit to London holes up in her hotel room with a stack of papers so she can read about who died the day before.

It sounds morbid, but it's not. We all get there eventually, and obits are how we will be remembered. Reading many of them makes one realize what kinds of things are important. In terms of our choice of work, it had best have a purpose, at least for ourselves but better if it's for others also. Our family is most of what we leave behind and is comprised, unless we are a lion of the Senate or a rock star, of the people who usually get to write it, so we had better get along with them. Although Mom is practicing good manners, she also gets something: it's not that life is short, but that we're dead for so long. And the obit is pretty much the last word, so what goes into it is pretty darned important.

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