Of Lost Souls and Lucky Stiffs
by Alexander Green Friday, August 7, 2009
I was saddened to read my parents' obituaries this week.
They have often been described as dear friends, "good people," and pillars of the community.
In our small hometown, for instance, my Dad was - at one time or another - President of just about everything: the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, the Rotary Club, the perpetually strapped local golf club, and so on.
Yet their obituaries don't begin to capture them as individuals.
Maybe that's why they had me read them. After all, they're not dead yet.
In fact, I don't know anyone more alive...
Though close to 80, my parents are active, healthy and - as always - having the time of their lives, even playing a particularly vicious game of doubles ping-pong and regularly beating the pants off my wife Karen and me.
So why am I reading their obituaries?
Some people can't deal with the thought of their eventual demise. My parents don't have that problem.
The living trust is done. The will is updated. The funeral plans are made. The kids have all been told which knickknacks around the house will be whose.
Now I learn their obituaries are written, too. But not particularly well...
The information they've jotted down is skeletal, bare facts that don't begin to do the job.
For instance, there's a long list of relatives and descriptions of who predeceased whom. But where's the beef?
Where's the story about the time my mother awoke in the middle of the night when she heard someone poking around under the bed and - assuming it was me - chased a burglar down the stairs and out of the house?
Or the time the family station wagon broke down on the way back from a ski trip and we decided to hitchhike the last 40 miles home? Since there were five of us (my Dad, my three brothers and me), we split into two groups so it would be easier to catch a ride. It's an odd memory: riding in a stranger's car on a freezing winter day, passing my Dad and younger brother on the side of the road with their thumbs in the air... and not stopping.
Obituaries don't always cover important milestones like these.
And that's unfortunate. After all, an obituary is not just a notice of a death. It's the story of a life, perhaps even an inspiration for the eulogy or the start of a memorial.
In the best cases, an obituary can rise to the level of literature. In 1988, an unsigned obit of jazz great Chet Baker in The Times of London said:
There were certainly off-nights, but even when his trumpet tone was practically transparent, his singing voice a whisper, and the music seemingly in imminent danger of coming to an absolute halt, his innate musicianship could still achieve small miracles of wounded grace.
Other obits, like this one by Hugh Massingberd of The Daily Telegraph, are less poetic:
The 3rd Lord Moynihan, who has died in Manila, aged 55, provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle. His chief occupations were bongo-drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer..."
Most of us, of course, will never be famous enough to merit an obituary in The New York Times or some other national paper.
Rather the first and only time your hometown paper will write a word about the vast majority of local citizens is when they've "gone to their reward."
As obit writer Richard Pearson likes to say, "God is my assignment editor."
And it's a tough job. Working in the hurricane of emotion that swirls around the newly dead, the obituary writer routinely deals with unknown subjects and distraught survivors while doing his or her best - on a tight deadline - to write something accurate, lively and memorable.
Even under the best circumstances, summing up a life is an awesome responsibility. The goal is to honor the deceased, to inform the community, to help families learn more about one of their own members - and perhaps about themselves.
Obituaries weigh someone's life and accomplishments, communicating the significance of a person, a place, an era.
The best are not simply portraits of grief. They inspire the living, reminding us what matters most.
Obituaries don't mention the budget meeting, the pay raise, the financial statement or the Rolex Presidential.
Rather they remind us of the importance of family, friendship, and community, perhaps inspiring us to emulate the best qualities of the deceased.
That will be a tall order when my parents' day comes. Their attitude, humor and irrepressible zest for living have set a near-impossible standard for the rest of the family.
Still, it's a star to steer by.
As Marilyn Johnson, author of "The Dead Beat" says, I wish I'd known him is the response every good obit writer tries to elicit.
And something the rest of us might endeavor to deserve.
P.S. I will be appearing on C-SPAN 2 at 11 p.m. tomorrow Saturday, August 8, 2009 at 11 p.m. My talk - filmed at FreedomFest in Las Vegas last month - is "The Road Map to a Rich Life: Money and What Matters." I will also discuss my new book "The Secret of Shelter Island." Hope you get a chance to catch it...
Have "Two Cents?" Just send your thoughts, ideas or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club and an Advisory Panelist of Investment U, a free, internet-based research service with over 370,000 readers. Alex is also the author of the bestseller "The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters." He's been featured on Oprah & Friends, CNBC, Fox News and "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek,
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