And you think I’ve raised a lot of questions already? Just wait till I begin pondering my wife! I’d start there, if I thought I could make any sense of it without all of the previous history and experiences, good and not so good. Yes, she and I both believe it would have been much better if we’d met, say, 12 years earlier … We would have been younger and more flexible, in many ways, than we were when our lives enmeshed. Or did I mention there are many parts of this getting older I just don’t like, all in addition to balding? She’s a most remarkable woman, incredibly talented and frustrating, highly opinionated and conflicted, too. We’ll just have to see where this all goes, especially in the transitions we see coming ahead.
Enough! What I am simply trying to do here is look under or around the all-too-often light give-and-take you and I have enjoyed and known, this time to more clearly see and identify the “differences” you so early noted while I so blithely remained ignorant or in denial. Through everything, though, you remain very special, mysterious, and yes, magical, in my life.
After all of this, for the record, it’s not snowing here – yet. And I’m off to the office, again.
As one funeral director ended our call on a night when I was the obituary editor a few months ago, “Stay well” – or better yet, as I’d add, “Stay faithful to all you are and believe.”
High among my regrets in this zigzag life of mine is the number of friends who have slipped away along the journey. I started to add “lovers,” but will hedge for a moment, given all of the complications.
Unlike my parents’ generation, mine has exhibited a tendency to let the connections go once we’re no longer in physical proximity. We don’t exchange Christmas cards the way they did. And we don’t visit much in our travels.
I think we’ve simply been too swamped trying to stay afloat in busy schedules, and while it’s possible I’m in an aberrant corner of the baby boomer phenomenon, when I ask around, no one argues to the contrary.
The one exception might be those individuals who serve as “switchboards” connecting social circles, the ones who know the news about everybody, those unique folks you easily confide in, for that matter, or at least easily reveal much more than you’d intend. In my Hippie Trails novels they show up as characters like Tate in the dorm or Nita in the newsroom. But they’re rare, and now that I’m retired from the office, I’m far from the last one of my active acquaintance.
Yes, it is hard to keep up.
One factor might be simply that guys, as a rule, rarely correspond. More often than not, it’s been their wives who’ve kept me informed – the ones I’ve yet to meet, in many cases, if we’re still exchanging holiday greetings. And that’s before the reality of divorce.
As I’ve also found, attempts to resume contact after a long hiatus can be problematic. Usually, only silence has followed or, in one case, a polite but all too curt update.
Quite simply, we’ve all gone our separate ways.
Admittedly, working in the newspaper trade did little to enhance this. It’s a field with high turnover, at least in the entry-level operations where many of us served in our younger years – the time most prone to socializing together. But the hours are typically nights and weekends, and few anymore would retreat to a nearby bar till closing, as we did during my first internship. Besides, in my last newsroom, closing hour had already arrived before we clocked out and the intensified drunk-driving crackdown dimmed any desire to stop on the way home.
That last newsroom really split into three working circles that rarely interacted anyway – the Sunday paper, where I devoted most of my career, dayside, and nightside. Few of us lived in the same city as the office, either, so once our shift was over, we fanned out across the state for home – well, some split across a state line to the south or east, as well. There was little to link our “outside” activities and families to theirs, despite some attempts such as minor-league baseball outings or a picnic. Mostly, we were pulled along our private byways.
Looking at my broader life, I’ve known some incredibly talented people and wonder from time to time how they’ve fared. (The kinds I’ve sketched in my Hometown News novel, for that matter.) Many, as I sense, have wound up performing in the small, out-of-the-way places where they’ve settled – something occasionally confirmed in a successful Google search. Or I keep reflecting on a comment a poet repeated the other night, someone born the same year as me – “I never achieved the great things that were expected of me,” even “I failed to accomplish” – something I suspect is very common among those of us born this side of the crest in the baby boom wave. Those just a year or two ahead had that much of an edge in the job openings, especially when it came to university tenure track.
Still, once in a while some jarring bit of news breaks through.
The latest reports the fatal heart attack on Thanksgiving Eve that claimed a photojournalism guru who was at the edge of one of those circles. I knew him through Marcy, the amazing shooter we’d hired at the small newspaper where I was the No. 2 guy in a staff of eight full-timers trying to cover sections of five counties – an operation so tight we didn’t even have access to live wire photos. We were forced to be resourceful (or else mediocre), and some of my proudest work comes from that shoestring venture – especially the projects with Marcy.
Given the long hours and very low pay, it couldn’t last forever. For those of us who were the hired guns from outside, the clock was always ticking – it was only a matter of time before moving on, hopefully out of our own initiative. In this instance, Marcy and Larry married shortly after I’d swept up my own young bride, and as a young couple, they soon shot off to new adventures to the east while my wife and all of our possessions trucked southwest and later northwest.
Larry, as you may have guessed, was the photo guru. In our few encounters, he always loomed larger than life as he overflowed with ideas and energy and, especially, an outrageous glow of humor. He went on, as his obituary confirms, to build a storybook professional resume of management-level success that included the National Geographic and a handful of big-city, big-name newspapers before easing on into college teaching, at least until he was embroiled in a scandal.
Newsroom management, I might add, has always been a tightrope walking act. I’ve seen some very good leaders who were shaken from their heights and simply could never quite get back into the business – they’d gone too far up to go back in the ranks but not far enough up to move from one disaster to the next, as the top level seemed to do.
His wife – and later, former wife – was one of the two photojournalists who have long set the very high standard I apply in editing news pictures, and I’ve often said I’ve worked with some of the best in the business. Her images always had a signature warmth and vision, even before we evaluate her impeccably flawless lab work. But I lost track of her career, picking up only mention that she, too, had gone on to college teaching – something I know she must do well. Somehow I missed that she’d shared in a Pulitzer Prize and now, as I look that up, I see the years she covered the White House for the Associated Press and more. There’s her portrait of five living presidents together or Bill and Hillary with the pope or Socks the cat atop a White House lectern. Yeah, she done good – real good. As I said all along, she’s the best. (Well, with one – just one – exception, who I came across thanks to her reference. But that’s another long story.)
What I didn’t remember – or perhaps even know – was how much Larry fit into that little paper where I’d worked. He was born within its circulation area and became its photographer at the beginning of his career – the same job his future wife would fill. His degree was from the state university at the other edge of our coverage.
What keeps coming back to me is the fact he was only a year older than I am. He always seemed to be, well, that looming presence up the ladder. The one landing in places I might aspire to. One well ahead of me, the way a guide would be.
There were a few close shots at that leap – near misses – but they rarely linger on my list of regrets. If anything, in retrospect, I feel blessed I was instead enabled to reclaim my own life by putting in the required work hours and then going home, where I could live and love and worship and pursue my own literary practices.
I am puzzled that this distant news hits me more than the deaths of a half-dozen colleagues of my generation from my last newsroom did – cancer, diabetes, heart-attack, perhaps even suicide. But I also acknowledge a circle of dear friends facing long-term, but ultimately fatal, diagnoses as well as others who have already had close calls, plus a few others who have passed on – or passed over, in the old Quaker term. Natural mortality is circling in, after all, and there’s no escaping. I’m aging.
So here I am with some glorious wedding photos – taken a day after the ceremony by a Pulitzer Prize winner. The ones that stay in the filing cabinet, given my own eventual divorce. Not just because of the wild polyester suit I wore for the occasion. Historic documentation, as I’m reminded.
And all of that’s flooding back now. Even without the novels.
None of the accounts mention it, though as I find in online searching, none of them had an actual obituary, either. But within the span of a year, three special acquaintances – all in their prime – had died of what appears to be suicide if you read between the lines of the news releases.
One was my best friend ever of my adult years, until our lives turned in much different yet somehow parallel directions. The second, a high school classmate of deep intellect – a shared rarity where we were in that troubled period. And the third, someone who stayed a week with us before returning to some truly horrific visions in the realms of international policy.
All three were remarkable and important individuals.
Anais Nin once posited that each of us has a demon to battle, and my response remains, “Only one?” On another level, I wonder about those individuals who have never felt the despair that prompts suicide.
I suspect this is one of those areas of our spiritual quest and practice we rarely discuss. Where could we even begin? How can we possibly define life fully, much less death? We can speculate, of course. Yet the darkness and accompanying numbness are, for me, inarticulate as the void described in Genesis 1:1.
There are no answers, in the end. Only the dawning of Light, when we can greet it.
For much of its history, the Society of Friends forbid the use of engraved gravestones, deeming them vain and superfluous. Even so, another custom emerged, the drafting of memorial minutes for Quakers whose lives might serve as an inspiration for others.
The result was quite different from either the typical obituary or eulogy, and many of them prove surprisingly candid, as genealogists discover. If a eulogy celebrates the person, the memorial minute focuses on the individual’s spiritual life and service, especially in the ways these play out in the world.
Often, the minute would be approved by the local Quaker Meeting and entered into its records. If the individual had been active at a wider level, the minute would also be forwarded to the Quarterly Meeting (a gathering of local meetings that comes together four times a year), where it would be shared and, in due practice, approved. If appropriate, this would be repeated at the larger Yearly Meeting level.
As an example of the practice, here is the nearly finished draft of the minute for one Friend. As a member of the committee that prepared this, I’d like to show the “long” version that includes more of her remarkable career, in contrast to the shortened versions that were approved by the circles of Quaker meetings.
Alanna’s minute was approved by Fresh Pond Monthly Meeting and endorsed by Dover Monthly Meeting, and then accepted by Salem Quarterly Meeting, before being included in the minutes of New England Yearly Meeting’s sessions last month.
September 25, 1956 – February 2, 2013
From an early age, Alanna Connors discovered a need and a capacity to trust her own compass. She was a mathematician at a place in time where women were seldom found. When her high school math teacher flunked her for excellent work, another teacher told her: “You know he’s giving good grades to boys and not to you, because you’re a girl.” Recounting the story in later years, Alanna said, “I didn’t need that; I knew I could do the math.” She held true to her course.
Long before finding Quakers, Alanna lived the testimony of experiencing God in everyone. While most of us have tight circles of caring – our family, friends, coworkers – Alanna’s circles were as unbounded as a wave expanding to all of space. It seems no accident her profession became looking at objects distant in the universe: across the many communities of her life’s paths, she welcomed all beings. Living with her was a joy; her love for others was never abstract but a centered flame close to her and everyone she touched.
Alanna was born September 25, 1956, in Hong Kong to Richard and Sonia Mitchell Connors. Her mother, who herself had a degree in mathematics and studied with Jean Piaget at the Sorbonne in Paris, ultimately worked as a font designer. Richard learned to fly in his youth and became a pilot with Pan American Airways, stationed in Hong Kong. Through his delight in sailing, his five children all learned to sail. Alanna took the lead, becoming a competitive sailor in her time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Returning to the United States in 1963, Alanna’s family settled in Greenwich, Connecticut. Living with four siblings – one older, Cynthia, and three younger, Kathleen, Noirin, and Patrick – in environments not always centered on these children’s welfare, Alanna developed an immense capacity to listen and extend empathy. Imagination shone through her grade school writings; her elaborate, award-winning gingerbread houses; and family-staged dramas.
Alanna was irrepressibly fascinated by math and science. She thrilled to the elegance of mathematics in expressing, revealing, and predicting physical behaviors. For her, mathematical physics was inseparable from the playfulness, color, artistry, and imagination by which she produced it. Whether it was classroom notes, derivations on scratch paper or napkins, or formal solutions, her handwritten analyses were crafted in flourishing script, vivid with colored pencil illuminations, and playfully annotated with such characteristically inventive words as “whatsit.”
Alanna’s dorm room hosted a wide array of human spirits. Her hotplate, washstand, handmade teapot, and mismatched cups provided hearth and an excuse for tea and convivial warmth at all hours of the night.
She met fellow student Phillip A. Veatch while they were both organizing MIT’s first on-campus food cooperative. After a year of courtship, they exchanged private vows of marriage in 1978, on a basketball court in East Cambridge. Alanna was opposed to the state-sanctioned institution of marriage because of its historical role in the oppression of women.
Communal living, conceived around Alanna’s dorm room, continued into her committed life with Phil through group houses with shared vegetarian cooking. While in Maryland during her doctoral years, they asked all prospective housemates: “Can you have: 1) too much garlic; 2) too much chocolate?” A no answer on both questions was mandatory for joining the group house.
With one housemate, Alanna went “church shopping.” While appreciating the wide span of worship experiences, Alanna gravitated to the Religious Society of Friends in 1982 in Adelphi, Maryland, dragging along her then-reluctant partner. A deep commitment to the Quaker principles of simplicity, peace, integrity, and justice soon enriched both of their lives. They continued at Dover Monthly Meeting in New Hampshire and finally settled at Fresh Pond Monthly Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1998.
Wanting to understand stars, she became a groundbreaker in charting the sky of X-ray sources. Being of a mind to “like thinking we are all professional visionaries,” Alanna’s deep searches into the distant sky uncovered new observations and questions. After earning her doctorate at the University of Maryland, Alanna made significant contributions to the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory as a research scientist at the Space Science Center at the University of New Hampshire. She introduced astrophysics to Bayesian methods of statistics, which start from an assumption that knowledge about a problem is always incomplete. Applying this rigorous data analysis to X-ray and gamma-ray astrophysics, she provided a foundation for statistical methods generally unknown to astronomers in the early 1990s.
As a banjo player, she encouraged use of the Rise Up Singing songbook, learning by heart its song “Julian of Norwich.” Original lyrics and tunes came to her, either fully formed or developing through writing. Alanna’s spirit still comes to us through the texts and music of the dozen songs she set down in composition.
Despite being an intense introvert, she harbored a lifelong belief in the importance of community-building. She cofounded an astrophysics statistical working group at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. As a senior scientist, she was known for her support of young graduate students. She founded a singing group at Dover Meeting, and while living in Arlington, Massachusetts, enjoyed singing with Nick Page’s Mystic Chorale Singers. After the birth of her son, Roy, in 1999, she worked with other parents to reform special education in the Arlington public schools. She volunteered regularly at New England Yearly Meeting annual sessions working both in child care and the bookstore. She regularly attended the Women’s Group at Fresh Pond Meeting, where she spoke regularly about her concerns in raising her gifted son.
Alanna envisioned and encouraged public science education. She taught astrophysics at Wellesley College as a visiting professor, participated in university physics instruction at UNH and UMD, contributed to public education in science through projects at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord New Hampshire, c0-organized family science days at her son’s elementary school, and encouraged exploratory science learning and teaching through many other avenues. She had an abiding interest in the history of physics and astronomy from its ancient origins, in welcoming women’s participation in physics, and in celebrating stories of diverse contributors to science.
Alanna was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995. She lived with the disease for 18 years. Characteristically, through its recurrences and treatment, she refused to be defined by the disease and conceived her son, Roy, born in March 1999. To her, the illness was but a single strand of her life. When Roy was 4, her disease recurred, and she took him with her to treatments, where he found the hospital’s high-energy accelerator intensely interesting. Whatever life brought her, she lived with it; she saw illness as no excuse to build walls. When her disease recurred for the last time, in an advanced form, Phil asked if she wanted to go on a special vacation. She did not, preferring to live in her callings.
At Dover Meeting, 1988-1998, she rotated through nearly every committee but also stayed long on Buildings and Grounds. During the first Persian Gulf War, Dover Friends called on her to write a compelling minute explaining the Meeting’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq and Kuwait. Phil and Alanna were lifelong advocates of same-sex marriage. When they decided for Roy’s sake to get legally married, they would not seek marriage under the care of Dover, as that meeting had not yet completed its process of hosting marriages for same gender (it has since done so).
During her time at Fresh Pond, her participation in committee work was limited by parenting and the recurrences and treatments of breast cancer. She was, however, a quiet and regular presence at Meeting for Business and an infrequent but powerful minister during Meeting for Worship, where her ministry was often structured around song.
Just as she knew not to take to heart a teacher’s censure that could have devastated a young mathematician, Alanna maintained integrity without ceding herself, her work, or others to be diminished. Mathematics was one route by which she independently investigated, questioned, and confirmed the truth for herself without relying on the claims of teachers and other external authorities. She stood up for discovering and expressing the full potential of one’s mind and heart, inspiring those around her to undertake aspirations and risks of which they did not suppose themselves to be capable. She knew greater being lies imminent within us all. Whether it was the rights of any couple to publicly live their committed love or a child’s mind emerging along ways and curiosities differing from the school norm, Alanna honored and worked for the fuller life she knew to be there.
Alanna’s spirit lives with us and continues to teach us. We remember her implacable but gentle striving to see the truth and to tell it. The women of Fresh Pond recall Alanna’s intense, powerful mothering, against all odds. Throughout her life she resisted the limits and distortions that social norms can impose on our vision of others. Knowing that a prism takes a beam of light and separates it into many separate parts, Alanna lived her life striving to bring the many separate parts of our world together into one shining beam.
Her memorial service was March 2, 2013, in the Wellesley Friends meetinghouse under the care of Fresh Pond Meeting. She was 56.
I never intended my professional career to end up with editing obituaries. “Who did you offend?” my colleagues wondered as I was scheduled to the shift week after week. Yes, it’s a job I could have done straight out of high school, forget the university honors or political science degree and urban studies certificate or my writing skills as a novelist and poet. It’s an almost paint-by-the-numbers task, converting the text families or funeral home directors fancy into a format my employer demanded (at least until recently) – and I was caught in the middle. Yet, make an error in an obituary, and the family remembers for decades, so precision is essential. On top of it, many nights are pressed for time – I needed eight minutes, minimum, for the actually editing, but had only six or even four, interrupted by phone calls. Mistakes will happen. Then it’s on to do the paginating, the puzzle of fitting the obits around the advertisements on the page and sending it on to the presses. Again, there’s no room for error – they’ve already been cut to specification.
Much of the work is repetitive. “WWII” becomes “World War II,” the year after a date takes a closing comma, as does the state after a city, and there’s a hyphen in “great-grandchildren” – these are things few people do in their submissions. Others turn up with alarming repetition: “formally of” a town, rather that “formerly,” or “internment” or rather than “interment” will take place. Things I must fix before getting down to the basic form itself.
Then there are the out-of-focus portraits, made worse by electronic submission. Nothing can make a bad photograph any better, but nobody will be convinced of that. They’re upset if you won’t run it, so you do and let the chips fall where they may.
I wasn’t alone in criticizing my newspaper’s obituary policy. For a long time, we charged a flat fee for a services section at the end, and considered the rest a news story, albeit limited to two hundred words. For many readers, however, the news interest is in knowing where to go for the calling hours or memorial service. The life story and family members are of more interest to the family scrapbook than to the general readership, and therein lies the friction.
What many really want to see in print is a eulogy – the funeral oration or at least an encyclopedic history of the deceased and family, where the tone is more addressing the deceased than the public. In contrast, journalism, as in a news story, demands “Smith” on the second reference – or in the case of an obituary, “Mr. Smith” – not “Joe” and not “Mary.” We’re not interested if he married “the love of his life,” since that cannot be corroborated, only the marriage date and location. We don’t use euphemisms such as “passed away,” but stick to “died.” Never mind the family’s desire to say she “went to spend eternity with her Lord and Master,” “quietly slipped into spiritual abyss,” “went home” or “to her heavenly home,” or that he “ventured forth to the Happy Hunting Ground” or “sensing a favorable tide, he set out on his final voyage” (what? The body was floated out to sea?). Paraphrasing the Bard, we’re not here to praise Caesar, but to tell the world he’s dead. Nor are we here to be cute or clever. When the submission includes phrases like “beloved wife” or “loving father,” I recall a Brethren minister declaring she’d never again do another funeral for someone she doesn’t know, with its implication of having been burned by the gap between some strange family’s projected image and its underlying reality. Then there’s the cliché, reminding me of those personals ads that say nothing insightful – “enjoyed most spending time with his family.” Doing anything in particular? Or does the family remember nothing? “She will always be remembered,” although people will forget – quickly. Better to admit, “She is remembered,” and leave it at that.
The out-of-state submissions are often puzzling. Sometimes, the only connection to our circulation area and its readership is that the deceased was born here or has a grandchild living here. Often, no mention is made. I think of the places I’ve lived and know I wouldn’t have my obituary submitted there – not even for the hometown where I lived for two decades. But that’s my own perspective.
Family-submitted obits are often the worst, and not just the ones delivered in nearly illegible handwritten script. There are additional delays and often long-distance phone calls while attempting to confirm the individual’s actually deceased. Without a funeral director’s assistance, the family often makes mistakes that will require later corrections. Should I mention the difficulty of trying to decode tangled syntax? Or one woman trying to call in her own obituary and offended that I wouldn’t accept it? “You’re not dead” seeming to her to be not an issue.
I’d rather we run them as classified advertisements, as the larger papers do. Pay for what you want. If you want to name all of the spouses of the children and grandchildren, you get to, unlike our longtime policy. My fear was that under our traditional practice, we were only offending people, especially those expecting something more for free. As it stood, nobody was really happy with this – not even me – and it’s too easy to lose a longtime subscriber’s loyalty here.
Sometimes, people go to great lengths not to include the age of the deceased, and it’s not always for women. He was a war veteran or they were married for fifty years, and that’s the best you can do. At times, especially for elderly people, the family is uncertain of the birth date, year, or place.
As I go, I also find myself reading between the lines. Signs of family tension are hinted when parents or wives are not mentioned, or there are children whose location is apparently unknown – or are listed as nothing more than “children.” Sometimes a spouse is reported living in a separate town or city, and I’ll leave that in. A sister writes from another state to request a copy of the obituary, and I see she’s not listed among the survivors. The ex-spouse and her children are named before the current wife, and his children with her are not named. As one small-town police officer told me, his department was never called out to a disturbance at the monthly New England contradance – unlike weddings and funerals, where drunken brawls break out. New Hampshire is, by most measures, a conservative state, and yet I’m struck by the number of families that want to name same-gender couples among the survivors or by fundamentalist churches having funerals for members survived by live-in companions. Between the lines, the changing social fabric becomes apparent. Listening to the police radio scanner, I’ve quipped that someone is a “live-in girlfriend” until they’ve had two kids together, and then she becomes a “fiancee.” But what does one make of “his fiancee of twenty years,” as if that’s an honor? The legal distinctions are blurring.
Occasionally, we come across a memorable description, a tellingly honest detail. “He hated weeding” is one of our favorites. Quickly, we know the deceased gardened seriously, and can sympathize. This is reality. As is the unintentional confession, “She enjoyed watching television and playing bingo,” as her major accomplishments.
I’ll admit finding the deaths of infants emotionally difficult to handle, especially in the confines of our format. Sometimes a family’s financial poverty is apparent, or one sees that it has lost other children, or even that the couple saw the child as a kind of fashion accessory deserving a celebration at a local nightclub. In contrast, I recall the experience Penny Armstrong tells in A Midwife’s Story, after losing the first child in more than a thousand Amish birthings, and the unexpected support she received from the funeral director. I feel grief and anxiety, too, handling obituaries for youths the ages of my own stepchildren – a parent’s awareness of the perils they face daily – and am grateful we’ve not had to conduct such a memorial service in my own congregation. On the other end, as we’re reminded, the death of an old person who has served well is no tragedy and can be an occasion for celebratory remembering.
Regardless of whether an obituary fills only half of one column or spills across three, there’s a basic tension between a family’s perspective and that of the editor or reader. For the family, it’s the only obituary of importance – and offense is easily perceived, especially in any comparison to the others, which is the reason for the tight formatting in the first place. One person has more siblings than another, for beginners, or more education or military service, for another. Never mind there are another thirty obituaries that day, and not all of them can be at the top of the page or have a usable photograph. (I’m repeatedly amazed by the out-of-focus shots families provide, without realizing the image cannot be improved.) The reader, in contrast, scans the page; few read every obituary; most turn only to people they’ve known.
Having genealogy as a hobby provides me with other insights into obituaries. I wonder what someone reading this fifty or a hundred years from now will be needing. The location of the hospital, for instance, or the telling detail. My wife and stepdaughters wonder what vanity prompts people to want to proclaim an individual’s accomplishments after the fact, arguing that those who are interested already know them. But I respect the concept of an eternal Book of Life and the human desire for one’s existence to add up to something meaningful and good. That is, the obituary turns into a quest for meaning in life, though I am among those who believe that search belongs elsewhere. Even so, over the decades, the structure and tone of obituaries have changed, and for those of us seeking clues into the personality of our ancestors, these particulars can be priceless. There was a time when families recorded a person’s parting words or when visitors coming from a distance were listed. Sometimes it’s simply high-blown language or a courtly turn of phrase. Even the boilerplate selected can be telling, as in one saying she was always a great beauty, even in her old age. The researcher becomes frustrated when the parents or place of birth are not listed. As an editor, I chuckle, seeing grammatical or obvious reporting errors I’m constantly fixing today while cursing a widespread decline in literacy.
There’s one exercise I’d like to commend – one I first heard about as an assignment for high school students, and something one might try with teenagers in religious education classes or retreats. It’s writing one’s own obituary. What would you like to see as your life accomplishments? How do you identify yourself and your surroundings? What is most important to you? This procedure can be a tonic to a society that celebrates youth and celebrity; instead, this attempt embraces the underlying mortality and lifts up the central values one wants to pursue in the conduct of one’s life. I think of reporters coming back from the assignment of updating obituaries prepared in advance for prominent citizens; inevitably, they tell everyone in the newsroom how delightful the conversation was.
In all of this, I try not to disclose that my own faith discipline discourages the use of calling hours and urges simple burial and memorial services, rather than elaborate funerals. If the coffin is in the room during the service, its lid is to be closed. I am one who finds the old funeral hymns to be far more beautiful and moving than any Christmas carol. When I look at an obituary, I would rather it proclaimed, like the hymn, “This is my story, this is my song,” while demonstrating the ways that life actively went “praising my Savior all the day long.” I might even close it with an altar call. But there are lines I don’t cross in a professional career. I wait for the other opportunities.
The experience of editing obituaries did more than give me some new looks into contemporary society and its changes.
It brought into focus the difference between an obituary and a memorial minute, or the times I’ve appreciated our Quaker-style memorial services in contrast to what others do. Here I am, typically dealing with funeral directors who wouldn’t find Friends to be lucrative customers, and realizing we often share a bond all the same. An obituary is a news notice, not a eulogy – the emphasis is on reporting briefly that has someone died and that services or calling hours are scheduled. The eulogy, in contrast, is to praise the deceased, and truth often gets blurred along the way. Sometimes, editing one of the latter, I hear an echo of a Church of the Brethren pastor in Maryland who told me, “I’ll never again conduct a funeral for someone I didn’t know.” The obituaries we published followed strict cut-and-dry guidelines, while many families want something quite different; of course, given the option of purchasing a paid advertising format, a common practice elsewhere, most opted for the free version, however resentfully.
The memorial minute falls between the two – as, for that matter, the memorial service falls between a liturgical rite and an event with a eulogy or two. Our Quaker focus is on the spiritual growth of the individual and the resulting service to others. Our candor often leads to laughter as well as tears. I’ve read of at least one Friends school where the youths were required to write their own obituary – an assignment intended to have them to reflect on what they want to see as their life’s mission. For a genealogist like me, coming across a memorial minute provides unique insights into a person’s life – for instance, with one I learn that he used more gesticulation than other ministers employed, drew heavily on evangelical prophets for his inspiration, but as he grew older, became more repetitious and lengthy, “though well meant”; he was of medium height, approaching corpulency, staid, and dressed in primitive Carolina style. More telling, he came to his service after a long period of weeping and questioning. This is not the material of either an obituary or a eulogy, yet it gives us something more telling – qualities to remember when we draft memorial minutes for others now among us, to guide one another in growing witness.