Dead ends

April 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

I can’t be the only one who grabs the California section of the L.A. Times each morning and races through to the obituaries.

In part it’s a response to aging: mortality seems so much more real than it did even 10 years ago. I check out ages of the deceased, do the calculations, think, “Okay, 94, that sounds good. Hmm, 83, I could accept that.” As if I actually could bargain for longevity.

Mostly, though, I read obituaries because they are mini-biographies, often fascinating glimpses into another’s otherwise private life. Written by a family member or friend, they attempt to sum up a life, say what made the person special. Not that that’s possible in 200 or so words, but those left behind try because that’s how we honor people we love.

There’s a certain predictability to many of the obituaries. Men are summed up through their careers, women by their families and volunteer work (unless they’re under 60, in which case careers also matter). In lieu of corporate success, hobbies, athletic accomplishments, travel, and pets’ names are mentioned.

Language, too, tends towards the conventional. The deceased has “gone home to the Lord.” They “bravely battled cancer” and “adored” their grandchildren. They were universally “loved and admired.” She/he married after meeting “the love of her/his life.” * It seems important to survivors to mention, when they can, that their loved one “died peacefully at home, surrounded by family,” which often leads to thanks and appreciation of the (usually Filipina or Latina female) caregivers who enabled the deceased to stay at home.

Even if spoken in platitudes, the stories these obituaries tell hint at interesting lives well lived. Folks arrive here from far-flung places: Skopje, Yugoslavia; Chuquicamata, Chile; County Donegal, Ireland; Tokyo, Japan, brought by parents or lured by jobs or relatives or the Golden State mythos.

I marveled at the man from Belfast, Ireland, for instance, who emigrated to the U.S. as a youth and served in the Air Force during WW II as navigator bombardier. He not only survived 30 missions over Germany but lived to be 100.

Occasionally, a good piece of writing appears, usually written by friends. A painter and print-maker was recently eulogized as “playful with his grandchildren and demanding of his students. He inspired all who knew him to expand their horizons and to accomplish more than they believed possible.”

More rare still are the profiles that detail a life not spent climbing the corporate ladder, such as the Japan-born, 18th generation Pure Land Buddhist priest who, later in life, studied in Switzerland and returned to Los Angeles as a Jungian analyst.

For all the richness of L.A. Times’ obituaries, many, many lives are unremarked upon. Prices for death notices start at $105 for five lines and go up from there. It’s a very white crowd one reads about, with just a sprinkling of Black people and Japanese-Americans. Latinos show up mostly when the Sheriffs benevolent society posts a notice about one of their own.

No, the obituary section is neither democratic nor truly representative of our community. Given that death is the most universal of all life experiences, isn’t this a most ironic shortcoming?

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