Lives in passing.

Now that I have close access to it, I’ve been reading the paper over lunch break. My current events feed has been entirely from the Net for a good number of years, and “reading the news” has always been my way of finding out what’s going on in the rest of the world beyond the borders of whichever state or nation I happen to be living in. (I wonder what it suggests about me, that I’m least interested in current events happening at closest proximity. Hmm, have to think about that.) While I’m glad that the local paper is able to fill in that neglect in my knowledge, I’m quite ambivalent about the current state of journalism. It is by turns monotonous and exasperating, and sometimes I feel justified in going on the Net for my current events. (But, another day for my thoughts on current events reporting.)

So I always end up in my favourite part of the newspaper: right at the back, in the obituaries.

I love reading obituaries, because in that person’s death is a testament to the person’s life. This section feels like a breath of fresh air after all the stuffy ventilation in the previous pages. Opinions, speculations, trivialities, and all the scurryings of existence… all of that doesn’t count for much when you are standing in the presence of death and memory. Nations, governments, and regions… all those fade away and become nothing as I’m reminded that what is most important in the world is individual people, individual lives.

There’s nothing depressing about reading obituaries. They are simple. Genuine. Peaceful and calming to read. They may be sorrowful, but they are also celebratory in a way. And they are so fascinating. Obituaries are tiny windows into lives of strangers. So many people with such varied lives, so many families and loved ones honouring the memory. I read the obituaries almost every day at work, but some really stick on my mind. The obituary of a monk, and a cloistered nun, written by their respective relatives. An extensive obituary of a grandmother, written by her large family — but the simple parting message from her husband of 70 years brought tears to my eyes. A tribute to a man who was hard and private, who seemingly had no living relatives, but was nevertheless remembered by his neighbours and community. A memorial to two police officers by their neighbourhood unit. (I still wonder: if they are memorialized together, what happened? how did they sacrifice their lives?) Some of the most sobering (and poignant) obituaries are of children and teenagers, and those taken “tragically” or “suddenly”.

But by far the saddest ones are the “unacknowledged” submissions. Usually they are lines with these simple words: “Name, died on Date” – “late of Suburb/Town” – “Rest in Peace”. That is all. No acknowledgment of who submitted it. Most obituaries are close to today’s date, but these tend to be very delayed: sometimes the deceased had passed 1-2 months ago. Occasionally the date of birth is not even recorded. And usually, those names are mentioned this once and never again.

Obituaries are tiny windows into lives of strangers, but I look through these windows and see a dark and empty room. And I wonder: Who is this person? What became of their life? Did they die alone, why? Was there no family to remember them, why not? Will anyone – anyone at all – look at that name, and recognize it as someone they knew? Will this be the last memory of their existence on earth?

It hits me every time I see a lonely obituary. How tragic, how sorrowful it is, to die alone without living connections. To have no one alive remember you as “such kind” of a person, to have no one who would acknowledge your impact by leaving their names linked with yours in your memorial. There are war memorials to “the unknown soldier”, but it is an anonymous remembrance of an anonymous person. This seems more tragic. Wouldn’t it hurt to hear your name called, turn around, but not be able to see the one who called you, and never know who it was? Somehow, it strikes me as a kind of abandonment.

Sad as I feel when I see them, I actually go looking for these lonely obituaries, to say a prayer for them and the people who knew them. The world may have forgotten them, but God knows them by name.

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