Reading the Obituaries

Phil and I finally canceled the newspaper subscription. We did it months ago, yet still the paper appeared at the end of the driveway. It was part of the morning ritual for Pepin to “retrieve” it. Some days the sections were strewn across the front yard, leaving Phil to collect the mangled pages. But often the orange plastic bag made it on the kitchen counter, Variety page unfolded to the Sudoku puzzle ready to tackle, with his first cup of coffee. But now, Star Tribune cut us off and we are all adjusting to our paperless morning. Pepin stands on the doorstep confused as to why there is no trip down the driveway, Phil has found online Sudoku, and me?

I miss the obituaries, my go-to section of the newspaper, especially on Sunday.

Yes, I know it sounds doomishly depressing, especially because I have cancer. But I don’t look at it that way. In my work as a researcher for an Executive Search firm my job was to read the credentials listed on LinkedIn profiles, CVs, and resumes to fill an entire database. Now retired, I read obituaries with the same intensity. Who was this person? Where did they live? What mark did they leave on this world? I even clip and save obituaries I find particularly inspiring, or exhibit the qualities, interests and pastimes I aspire to. I want to be the matriarch who loved flyfishing, kept a life list of thousands of bird species, who was remembered for her smile, the handwritten notes she sent, who loved generously.

David Brooks in his book, The Second Mountain suggests that we live our lives with more eulogy values, less resume. And I agree with this. I would much rather be remembered for my kindness and loving relationships over a list of career accomplishments. Thomas Lynch, writer and poet, author of The Undertaking says obituary is an intro to biography. He knows what it is to honor the dead through his 40 years as a Funeral Director in Michigan. The obituary may serve as the one chance to share a life story and when published provides essential facts about our ancestors to fill in our family tree. I have written obituaries for both of my parents and did a fair job of it, considering it’s hard to capture a loved one’s enduring qualities in a few lines when there is so much to say in a grief-filled time, plus under deadline. A photo helps, a template helps.

It feels much like walking through MSP’s airport after returning from a trip, how all the faces seem familiar.

Maybe my focused reading of the obits intensified after their deaths, scanning faces, names, ages and hometowns with earnest. I found a strange kinship with others who mourned the loss of parents and grandparents, pausing when I saw pancreatic, or melanoma cancers mentioned. Truthfully, I was keeping tabs on other 80-year-olds, the friends and neighbors of my parents who I might see in print. Now I can’t help look more closely at women my age, especially those who died of breast cancer. My therapist told me to knock it off, that it wasn’t helpful. I know it isn’t a given that it will happen this way for me. But it does remind me that I have these precious days to focus on the things that stir me, take time to find beauty, look for the light, trust that others are there to hold me in the darkness, and that we are all part of life’s cycle of birth and death. 

So far, we are getting along just fine without the paper, and maybe will go with the eEdition now that Star Tribune has announced a new publisher, who knows the future is less print, more digital. Until then, I am getting my content from a variety of sources and starting the day with inspirational reflections and meditations I find in my inbox.

6 thoughts on “Reading the Obituaries

  1. I love this so much, Debra. I started reading the Sunday obits (we only get the Sunday paper) after my dad died, and it does feel like I’m keeping tabs on people in the community. I love reading your words here again! xoxoxo


  2. My grandmother used to read the obituaries every day, quipping, “I have to make sure I’m not in them!” My family teased her for the morbidity, but then one day, when she actually was there on the page in front of us, we laughed and sobbed together. “Oh, no Grandma. You’re in the obituaries!” Not even twenty years old yet, I started reading them myself. In some way I felt I needed to carry on for her, watching over the daily notices as a witness of sorts. If an obituary is the one chance for someone’s life story to get noticed, then it is an honor to read their story, take notice, and witness their part, small.or large, in the cycle. I find it strangely calming and centering. My own family now teases me for reading them. Grandma would love this, and she’d love your approach to honoring life’s cycle of birth and death. Thank you, Deb, for such a wonderful reflection.


    1. Diane,
      I was so delighted about your equal enthusiasm for obituaries. And I too have heard people joke about reading them to make sure they were NOT in there. Every family needs an archivist and researcher, I guess you are it! Thanks for reading and responding.


  3. You hit on a topic, Deb, that fascinates many of us — and one that isn’t often discussed. Your openness and vulnerability is refreshing and allows us, the readers, to probe more deeply into our own thoughts and opinions. Thank you!!!


  4. Years ago, my Mom had been living with us for several months before she passed away – miles away from her home on the prairies of North Dakota but safe and loved in the arms of our family in her final days. She died mid-winter and we decided to hold her service at my home church in the western suburbs, then have the burial and memorial service in North Dakota in June, on her birthday and on the date of her & my Dad’s wedding anniversary. We posted her obituary in the Star Tribune, even though there were few family & friends located in the Twin Cities. It was such a tough loss for me – as it is for most of us who have lost a parent – and I stumbled through those first few weeks after her passing in a daze. Finally, I returned to work at my current consulting gig (at that one local utility we both know so well!). On my first day back, one of the union guys (who I didn’t know well but who had seen Mom’s obituary and recognized my name as her daughter) took the time during one of his breaks to seek me out, offer his solemn handshake and heartfelt apologies for my loss. This brief encounter was truly a blessing from someone who was almost a stranger – and I remember the gift of his condolences and compassion all these years later, a gift that would not have been possible without his reading of the obits. And so, I now read the obits also, in hope that someday I may also be able to pay his kindness forward, as a small gesture & offering to acknowledge another’s loss.
    Thank you for this, Deb – it brought back a wonderful memory.


    1. Cindee- YES to the unexpected expressions of sympathy. You have captured that state of grief, when you think it must surely be obvious, or at least hoping that others would see it and provide comfort. I am glad this brought back a wonderful memory of human kindness, and a desire to do the same. Thank you for sharing.


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