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Reading the Obits

“Are you reading about dead people again?” my husband asks me.

“Heck, yeah.” Obituaries are a goldmine for writers in search of interesting characters, not to mention people like me who are just generally nosy and curious about other folks and their life experiences.

This morning, I read about a retired minister who loved to laugh. He would often greet his parishioners by saying, “’Do you look like a million? Feel like a million? Got a million?’ Well, two out of three ain’t bad.” Okay, it’s a terrible joke, but it gave me such a clear picture of this guy.

Speaking of pictures, that’s another interesting thing about obituaries. Our choice of pictures says a lot about how we see ourselves or how our loved ones want to think of us. Did they dig out that decades-old picture of Uncle Max in his bomber pilot uniform or go even further back to high school graduation? (my personal favorites, because I love old pictures) Or was everyone A-Okay with putting out what he looked like toward the end of life?

Then there’s the social history aspect. Obituaries reflect our changing times. Statements like “George was with General Electric for 44 years prior to his retirement” appear frequently if the deceased was in his eighties or beyond. Sticking with one firm in today’s economy? Unusual to say the least.

As for George’s wife Mildred, she was most likely a homemaker who doted on her grandchildren. While her children were growing up, she was active in the local Woman’s Club and the League of Women Voters. Plus she volunteered at her children’s schools and a bunch of other community organizations. If George was doing well at his job, she was also a member of the country club and an avid golfer. While we still have plenty of doting grandmothers around, most women are working outside the home by choice or necessity, and have to be a lot more selective in what they volunteer for or the amount of time they spend on the links.

Mildred may also have dealt with multiple moves as her husband moved up the career ladder. Today, given the presence of two careers to consider for couples, demanding that workers relocate every two or three years is apt to be a lot more problematic.

All in all, I don’t really consider reading obituaries an obsession with death. It’s more an obsession with life, and the myriad ways we’ve lived them.

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