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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    Obits: And another thing...

    A milestone nobody especially wants to reach is that time of personal reckoning that there are better obituaries than “If you’re reading this, I’m dead.”

    Some people leave it up to fate and family whether their passing will be marked by an announcement of death and a recap of life. Others get ahead of that decision by having a selfie obituary ready years before they expect to need it. This serves two purposes: a comforting, if false, sense of control and avoiding an obit written by someone else that would make a person roll over, etc.

    As a lifelong reader about the recently departed, I appreciate a good obituary. No matter who compiles and writes it, a really good obit gives one last gift to the living. Not only the loved ones but the wider circle who shared the same town or workplace or other associations get to see the person they knew, in one context, in all their connections. An even wider circle reads for reasons that range from existential to nosy. All are getting a picture of a person, place and times that weaves in the loose threads from different parts of a life.

    Obits were not always so comprehensive. Until the early 2000s The Day and most other newspapers assigned staff to write all obituaries from material supplied by families through funeral directors. Obituaries qualified as news; they followed a prescribed style; and like other items in news columns, they ran without charge. They had to be timely, appearing almost immediately after a person’s death because most funerals took place shortly after and people who would want to attend needed to know.

    As staff worked with the daily list, they would recognize when to add details from the news archive about a person whose public life would be familiar to readers. For the very well known, the goal was to have a draft of the obituary on file so that it would be ready fast if needed.

    Twenty or so years ago The Day and other publications opened up the opportunity for longer, more detailed obits. They would still offer a free, very short announcement of death, but for a length-based charge, an obituary could go on and on.

    That’s when obits began to include hobbies, great-grandchildren’s names and the traits that made the person who they were: He loved a good story; she was happiest around horses; he could build anything; she was “a rabid Red Sox fan” — which always makes me want to ask if rabies was the cause of death.

    Those are the obits I really like. They round out the character and personality of someone at the time of their passing. They leave a legacy of who they were when, in their own private way, they shaped the community.

    Writing and reading such obituaries is essentially a way of understanding that their lives mattered. That is, of course, a form of immortality.

    In the mid-1990s The Economist magazine famously began publishing an obituary on the last page of each edition. The deceased is someone most people would not have heard of, but whose life was so special the magazine offers a chance to reflect on its meaning. One woman whose name I quickly forgot but whose life story stays with me was the last member of an Indigenous tribe in the Falkland Islands to speak her tribal language.

    She came from a people most others would never have known about if not for her obituary. The milestone of her passing gave fascinating context to a land whose modern place in the news was only one moment in a history that can no longer be told in its own words — whatever happens next. She was important.

    Today the ways of noting a person’s passing often begin with a relative posting on social media and then a Celebration of Life, rather than a memorial service or funeral, that might be scheduled for months later. Some, by their own wishes, will have no service at all.

    In the finality of that continuum, an obituary still serves to introduce the person to the world one last time. It’s good to make their acquaintance.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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