My grandmother was one of those women who read the obituaries every morning. Sometimes she would call out an age and how someone died, or she would throw out little facts about the lives on the page. I thought it was strange. Why would anyone want to read about death? As a child, I just thought it was weird and kind of spooky.
Then I grew up and became a librarian. Now I am the one reading the obituaries, usually to find something for a patron. Sometimes these searches are mind-numbing, and I tend to get dizzy from the microfilm. But, sometimes, you come across obituaries that stand out for some reason–maybe they are very sad, or tragic. Sometimes they are funny, or they tell a story about a person in a way that makes you feel that you knew them.
Thinking about this recently, I stumbled across a book by Jim Sheeler, titled Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives. Sheeler won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Rocky Mountain News, where he also worked as an obituary reporter. This book is a collection of his work during that time. What I love about the concept of this book is that the author chose the common man or woman as his subject. He realized that every person has a story, and everyone’s story has value.
On the lighter side, a quick Google search will bring up several links to humorous obituaries. Try this link from the publication Mental Floss. In addition, the book Cool Dead People: Obituaries of Real Folks We Wish We’d Met a Little Sooner by Jane O’Boyle is a little collection of interesting obituaries. The description on Amazon says the book includes the obituaries of people like “…the literary agent, Connie Clausen, who began her career as an elephant rider in the circus…the doctor who healed a town…a typewriter repairman to the stars...the countess who traded her title for a waitress tray…the cleaning lady who left $150,000 to a local college.” It is described as a “whimsical and moving collection” that “…has the last word on over 100 people who could be, well, any one of us.”
I think the reason I love these kinds of humorous and interesting obituaries is that they remind us that life, despite its problems, can be unexpected, crazy, beautiful, and ultimately, worth celebrating. Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time in the obituary pages. I am suddenly learning what my grandmother knew: that sometimes, reading about death can actually help us understand our own crazy, strange, beautiful lives.