Jul 26, 2016

Everybody’s Got a Personal Story

Is it morbid to enjoy reading about dead people? Their obituaries, that is. Well, whether or not it is, I do.

So, of course, the regular obituary page in The Sydney Morning Herald is a must-read for me, as is that page in its sister paper, The Age, when I’m in Melbourne. This page, in each, is regularly given over to one or two quite substantial obituaries (selected, I’m sure, from a plethora of contenders) – which are often interesting and even moving – about usually long-lived individuals who are typically either well known celebrities or lesser known achievers in their fields.

And they can make for powerful reading. Just in the last couple of weeks in the Herald for example, several remarkable people were featured. Their stories included the fascinating life of 88-year-old Doug Stewart, whose name I hadn’t been familiar with, and who started out as a travelling salesman, and ended up not only being the judge who unmasked the “Mr Asia” drug syndicate and the violent world of organised crime linked with that, in the 1980s, but also – at the age of 70 – returning to work “after losing both feet to septicaemia.” Integrated with all of that was the romantic account of how he met his wife and had “an inspiring partnership” with her that lasted until her death from Alzheimer’s disease.

And then there was the much younger author, Miles Franklin-nominated novelist Cory Taylor, who died at the age of 61, shortly after completing a powerful book about her own dying days (Dying, A Memoir). And more recently, the dazzling socialite with “a real zest for living,” Susan Renouf, who did her death – as her life – in style by dying on her 74th birthday.

Lives such as these make absorbing reading and are certainly worthy of publication. But what then, about what might be described as the lives of more ordinary men and women? What about their stories, and are they, too worth reading? The answers to these questions lie in the pages of obituaries – usually in the weekend editions – of many North American newspapers, both in the USA, and in Canada from where I’ve just returned.

In the Canadian broadsheet Globe and Mail of Saturday 25 June 2016, for example, there are 26 obituaries, spread over four pages of death notices, and ranging from a quarter of a column to two full columns, many but not all accompanied by a photograph. And the thing about each of them is that they manage to cover not only who were left behind to grieve, and the funeral details, but also something of the rich lives of each of the people who had died. Their obituaries are clearly written by people close to them and give, variously or altogether, insights into what they were like as personalities as well as aspects of their careers, their values, their families, how they enjoyed spending their time, and how they were regarded by those who knew them.

For me, these pages are compulsive and compelling reading. Especially because scattered through them are the personal touches that make you feel that each of these people would have been interesting to know. For teacher/librarian, Norah Phillips, for example, who was mourned by siblings, nieces and nephews, and who must have been in her 50s or 60s when she died of brain cancer, it was her desire to share the three mottos by which she lived. What a moving memorial to her, to see her family carry out her wishes, and publish this:

I am still learning.
sto pro veritate
(I stand for truth),
and dum vivimus vivamus
(While we live, let us live).

For hugely successful and inspiring agriculturalist, 90 year-old Dr James Rennie, it included the fact that “he was a wonderful grandfather – letting the under-age boys drive to the cottage dump, helping with rigging the sailboat and teaching the basics of home maintenance and landscaping. He was infinitely patient with his grandchildren. Their noise and laughter made him happy.”

Laughter was also a special feature in the life of 95-year-old Audrey Orr who, happily, “was lucky to have found love twice,” and who was “a true lover of life whose mantra was ‘GO FOR IT.’ She said everyday how lucky she was to have lived such a full life filled with many great times and much laughter. Mom had a legendary laugh (Ah, dear!), thank goodness this has been passed on to many.”

And while 86-year-old “Bernie” Skinner had been a distinguished physician practitioner and professor, in his personal life “his devotion to the care of his wife Mary, after being diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s was his gift to her. Right up until he was no longer able to, he visited Mary every day in her nursing home.” In addition to his work, moreover, “Bernie was a talented man who led a full and exciting life. He was passionate about sailing, skiing, woodworking, model yacht racing, and generally mucking around in boats….His skill in furniture-making resulted in many beautiful pieces that grace the homes of family and friends, and continue to remind us of this wonderful man.”

And so on and so enjoyably forth, to be able to touch the lives of so many people whom we have only been given the opportunity to meet through their deaths. Compare that with the stream of death notices in our local papers, focusing mainly on lists of those left behind and information about the funerals, and sometimes going so far as to give us variations on the theme of “so dearly loved, so dearly missed, forever in our hearts.”

To the Americans and Canadians, I say thank you for sharing. And to the editors of Australian newspapers, I would ask you to please take this leaf out of their book, and encourage us to follow their example in death notices of the future. Not only would this be a boon to readers such as I, but – surely – writing them would be cathartic for those left behind.

Anne Ring 2016©

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