Those born since about 1960 will likely think it strange, but I frequently find myself browsing through the obituaries these days while reading the morning newspaper. That can take a while in my town, where the Houston Chronicle sometimes devotes three or four pages to this section. There are several reasons for my interest, none of them morbid in the least. I was born in 1944 and find it fascinating that half the people listed on any given day were my age or younger when they died. I am also curious to see if I know anyone listed. That doesn’t happen often in a city this size but it does occur now and then. I have also come to appreciate the obituary as a literary form and am intrigued by what the various authors consider noteworthy or at least memorable about the subjects of their respective final remarks.
Some writers are lighthearted, even humorous. One recently departed angler had the nickname “Catfish,” and “left” his survivors “waiting on the shore.” Others are downright laborious, like the one who memorialized a college professor and listed in detail what must have been every chapter, article and review the dreary soul ever published. One wonders whether some officially-social souls were actually very lonely. That was my thought when I read about the woman who belonged to six paragraphs of country clubs and garden societies but had no children or other close relatives. Then there are the heart-warming kind — the obituaries that tell how much the retired businessman loved his grandchildren, or describing the mother whose cooking filled her neighborhood with wondrous aromas and attracted all the children within smelling distance to her front porch. We must not despise the worldly successful either — people who worked hard to attain impressive academic degrees, notable professional accomplishments, outstanding wealth and other marks of secular achievement. Such triumphs are duly admirable and doubly so when matched by noble interior qualities.
Most issues of the newspaper chronicle the death of someone famous — a politician, educator, business or professional leader — alongside many others who lived largely unknown and died uncelebrated apart from the single newspaper obituary notice. Thomas Gray foresaw them also when he wrote: “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife their sober wishes never learn’d to stray; along the cool sequester’d vale of life they kept the noiseless tenor of their way.” On the labors and fidelity and piety and steadfastness of those quiet people, for the most part, the world continues to turn and community exists and life is bearable and beautiful and better. Let us so live that when it is our time to go, we may do so, in the words of another immortal poem, “sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust,” as one who “lies down to pleasant dreams.”