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Consider This

By LC Van Savage

The Gloat And The Phew Is Waiting For You

Old, old joke---I think either started by George Burns or just repeated by him a lot. It goes, “I know it’s a good day when I wake up and don’t read my name in the obituaries.” Bad, bad joke too. Everyone knows dead people can’t read.

I read the obits. Doesn’t everyone? Oh come on, you know you do. And there’s just the tiniest little feeling of gloat, right? No, we never want to admit that, but it’s there, way way back in our psyches. A miniscule little phew. And yet we all shudderingly know the gloat and phew will one day be experienced by others when they read about our passing. Uh oh.

For me, reading the obituaries every day is kind of like paying a small homage to the folks who’ve gone ahead of me, a nod to them and a silent pleading, “Hey, when I gasp my final, could you find the time to come and visit me pretty quickly? And would you mind hanging around for a while until I get used to the place? I’m a little shy you know, and new surroundings always get me kinda nervous.”

Is it possible to write one’s own obituary? Sure, I think so. If I could get a written guarantee that it’d be published when I pass onto the next plain, I’d dearly love submit to the newspapers a long tedious tome filled with my many, many Great Accomplishments. This would be so I could get even with all those impossibly overachieving relatives and friends who’ve sent me those onerous 2-sided single-spaced Christmas letters filled with family news always involving the words, “Harvard Business” and “Wharton” and “MIT” and “Rhoads Scholar” and “Seventeen trophies in one year,” and “Violin solo at the Philharmonic,” all studies in braggadocios, utter boredom, true or not. But then, just as I don’t read those torturous Christmas card enclosures, my Great Accomplishments obituary would likely not get read either. Fortunately for the world’s ecology, both are recyclable.

Better yet, may I please request to not even have an obituary at all? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Mine wouldn’t make for particularly compelling reading anyway. And yet if my family insisted there be one and had I died of a bad disease I would have to instruct them to not advise the readers that I’d died after a long and courageous battle against whatever disease had gotten me. If I catch something bad, I intend to not be courageous in the slightest and to go out whining and complaining shrilly at every possible opportunity, making dead sure everyone hears, no pun.

Obituaries seem to be a lot more interesting and friendly in the last couple of decades, filled with normal conversation, good stories about the deceased, pleasantries, idiosyncrasies, vignettes, accomplishments, family love. Nicer now, they’re not dry, factual and boring as they were years ago. No one ever read them when I was growing up. Well at least I never read them unless I had some connection with the deceased. But now I really enjoy obituaries, although I’m not especially rejoicing about all those people dying, particularly the too-young ones. But I do love reading about the people of Maine and all they’ve done with their lives, all they’ve given back, all they’ve packed into their years here in this wonderful state. I enjoy reading about their many accomplishments, their livelihoods, hobbies, charities, children and grandchildren, spouses and parents, close friends, significant others, and sometimes even beloved pets. Obituaries are tiny biographies of lives gone by, fitting ends for lives often well lived.

But I recently read an obituary in one of our Maine papers that had me hooting with irreverent laughter. I shall refer to the people involved as John and Jane Doe. I don’t know if it was a typo, or if the deceased had requested it to be so written, (that’s what I’m hoping) or if it was a spellcheck function gone awry, but most astonishingly the obit read, “Jane Doe died after a brief, courageous battle with an illness and a long and aggravating marriage to John Doe.” Now that’s an obituary for the books, the absolute best I’ve ever read and it will remain my favorite forever. If there’s a great obituary archives somewhere out there, that one from Mrs. Doe belongs on page one, in raised letters. Maybe even in gold leaf.

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