On Obituaries

“Thats morbid,” everyone responded when I tell them I’ve been reading the New York Times collection of obituaries. I disagree. I read an obituary a day to test a practice I read about from Austin Kleon from his book, “Show Your Work.” Mr. Kleon states it simulates the feeling about being hit with a life altering event. My expectation was I would be grounded in the reality, being reminded of my inevitable death if I read them. This is to simulate the feeling that you know your end will come some day without having to go through a life altering event. At least, that’s the theory.

“The sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble.”

– Maira Kalman

A few years back, I read Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” where she concluded she had a deeper contemplation of life after reading memoirs with catastrophe. I’m reminded of similar consensus of feeling uplifted and reflective after I read Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and Primo Levi’s “If This Is A Man”. Both are about the concentration camps and neither dwell on the gross detail nor have a negative outlook on life.

The obituaries writers spotlight the recently deceased accomplishments, major struggles, and the family survivors. There’s some vesiage of their personality with a mixture of their accounts through a one liner quote with several second or third person views of how they made then feel. For example, Patricia O’Neal’s obituary included an annodote from people who worked with her on set. However, there are major shortcomings of an obituary as it does not capture the small moments, the cumulative effect they had to the community, all the short stories of their experiences. It’s highly condensed writing to laud their efforts in life. And that’s okay, because that’s the format of an obituary. This is unlike biographies like that of Peter Barton, Steve Jobs, and Oliver Sacks. Those have little gems of knowledge that one can use in their everyday lives. Obituaries try to tie things up with a knot of someone’s passing.

After reading one a day for the past two weeks, I don’t feel life altering different. I’m a little more aware of myself, of the small things I do that I can change like being gratuitous to friends, family, and strangers, going out of my way to put that extra effort in my work, and learning to slow down. Actually, that last one is something I struggle with on a daily basis, but more of that in a future post. If that’s the kind of kick you want in your daily routine, open a newspaper or buy a collection of obituaries and read one a day. And don’t let anyone tell you that’s morbid because the effect is quite the contrary; obituaries celebrate life.

Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length. Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. . . . Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.

– Austin Kleon

Annotations:

  1. The collection of obituaries is called “The Obits: The New York Times Annual 2012”. “Sometimes the best part of a show is the curtain call, when the job is done and the actors bask in their well-deserved accolades. Here is a wonderful book filled with curtain calls. Count me among those on my feet and applauding like mad.” –Stephen King
  2. Austin Kleon’s book, “Show Your Work”, references the practice of reading obituaries in Chapter 1, “You Don’t Have To Be A Genius”. He also writes about this in a blog post after being inspired by Maira Kalman.
  3. Gretchen Rubin’s book, “The Happiness Project”, read memoirs with catastrophes in Chapter 8, “August”
  4. If you haven’t read Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” it has sound advice even though it’s over a half century old. Same with Primo Levi’s book, “If This Is A Man.”
  5. I wrote about Peter Barton a while ago. His memoir is called “Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived.” The Steve Jobs biography I refer to is by Walter Isaacson under the same name. I also wrote about Oliver Sacks last month about his biography, “On The Move: A Life.” Dr. Sacks died last month. Yes, you bet I read his obituary.
  6. I have two Ted Talks that share the same vein as this essay. One is by Ric Elias about how he thought he was going to die on a plane during the Hudson River plane landing incident, and what he changed in his life after. The other is by Sam Berns, who proves he can do anything even with his genetic disorder, progeria. He died in early 2014.