Wednesday, January 11, 2006

WEIRD HABIT # 2: I collect obituaries


Interior ruin
Originally uploaded by lapinfille.

Yep. Some people collect first edition books, others pay obscene money for celebrity memorabilia, stuff like the Kleenex from Jack Kerouac's pocket, one of Marilyn's old socks; and then there's the eternal allure of stamps and rocks. But me, my only real collection is a folder stuffed with the little life summaries we call obituaries. Strangers' obituaries.

Though I haven't yet reached the age when I turn to the obits to find out what my old friends have been up to lately, it is the first thing I read in the paper. It's not always the most pleasant way to start the day. If the notices describe a life cut short, or a death that simply shouldn't have happened, I share in the grief.

I scan quickly, and like the discriminating shell collector, rarely find anything worthy of picking up off the beach, polishing and adding to my bucket.

I skim through the standard obits that list educational background, line of work, and survivors. The standard cocktail party questions we use to validate our existence: what do you do? Any children? Not very telling at a cocktail party, and not in an obit either.

Nor do I find many death notices of the famous worth saving. When I read a biography, I'm usually only interested in the starving and striving years. After fame is achieved, the story tends to flatten into a series of went-heres, won this, was honored with thats, and met so and sos. But what does this really say about the person?

No, what I want to hear is what the life was about. What the dead one loved and hated, what music they thought of as the soundtrack of their life (as Liz said in the comment section of my last post) what made them unique and irreplaceable, the one true thing they learned in life.

One exception to my avoidance of the well-known dead is John Fahey, an iconoclastic guitarist whose life was changed when he heard Willie Johnson sing, "Praise God I'm satisfied." After a successful and even more interesting career, Fahey was beset by the three gods of bad luck later in life. Divorce, illness, and drinking caused him to lose his house, and landed him in a mission. But before his death, he rose again, leaving the world with this provocative quote: "I never considered for a minute that I had talent. What I did have was divine inspiration and an open subconscious." An interesting--and humble--recipe for creativity if I ever heard one.

And how could I resist, clipping the obit of Fred Rosenstiel? After losing his entire family in the Holocaust, he devoted every waking moment of his life to planting flowers. It was, he said,
the only way he could alleviate "an abiding sadness in his heart."

Then there was Anton Rosenberg, "a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950s cool to such a laid back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything." There have definitely been times in my life when I felt like I was Anton Rosenberg--without the hipster cool, of course.

I've got Rose Freedman, the one survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that killed 146 of her co-workers in half an hour. For the rest of her life, Rose would crusade for worker safety, telling and retelling the story of the executives who went out through the roof, and never bothered to leave the door open for the workers. "What good is a rich man if he hasn't got a heart?" she asked again and again to people all over this country. It's a question that still echoes.

Somehow, over the years, the people in my obit collection have become friends. Whenever I think I'm becoming too uncool, I invoke Anton and he straightens me out; or if I'm whining about something that isn't going my way, I remember John Fahey, who used "Praise God, I'm satisfied" as a personal mantra throughout the years of homelessness and desperation. How can I do anything but sing?

******************************************************************

On another note, the gracious Jordan Rosenfeld was kind enough to ask me to submit a
Wednesday Essay to her always fascinating blog, Write Livelihood. If you would like to read
"Everything I know about Getting Words on Paper," please visit.

32 comments:

MB said...

I'm so glad I get to read your blog. (Praise God, I'm satisfied.) There is a rich undercurrent to this post. Very satisfying.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever lost someone close to you? If so, I don't think you would find so much fun in collecting other people's obituaries. I just lost my big brother 4 months ago...

Sheryl said...

This is a lovely post. (De-lurking BTW)

Patry Francis said...

mb: Thank you!

anonymous: I'm sorry if my post offended you. The intention of my collecting is not "fun," it is to honor and learn from lives that have inspired me in some way. I would think that would come through in the obituaries I described. And yes, I have lost someone close to me; I personally would be honored if a stranger found a quote or a message in his obit that was worthy of keeping and reading again and again.

Patry Francis said...

Sheryl: So happy to meet a de-lurker. (I think we x-posted.)

Stephanie said...

I'm going to go look up Fahey. I love that quote. I don't think collecting obits is disrespectful in the least. It's actually respectful in the most.

Lhombre said...

Your description of your collecting leaves me feeling in awe of all the wonderful collage artists who take the time to bring into their lives the importance of acknowledging that any and everything that somehow touches the soul qualifies as art;the sublime gesture of love shared. No one should ever be forgotten. No one. Not ever.

My prayers to anonymous.

dog1net said...

Patry,
Whenever I come by, I am always surprised by the topics you choose to write on, but more than that, I like the perspective you bring to a subject, as you do in this post, that most of us rarely give much thought to. Obituaries serve as much needed testaments and reminders of the lives that have been lived by others, and as such, provide us with reflection of our own lives. Thanks for coming by,
Scot

daphne said...

I read the obits myself, but don't keep them. I find myself crying all to often over them. I take comfort in the idea that someone might have read my grandmother's obit, pondered her life, held it up as an example, cut it out and kept it. She deserves to be remembered. Everyone does.

colleen said...

I wish I collected obituaries. It seems sort of late to start now. I did save one a few years ago because people were asked to donate in the deceased's name to funds that would thwart Bush's re-election.

If I'm reading an anthology I usually read the bios first and sometimes enjoy them more than the actual book contents. I also like to read when our local paper lists high school graduates. I like to know what their parents named them, if they come from a blended family or not, and what they want to do after high school.

Love that quote about talent.

Marilyn said...

I, too, read obituaries. And I didn't think for a moment that you were mocking. I read them for the same reason you do--because I find out about so many fascinating lives I'd otherwise never hear of.

liz elayne said...

To learn from those who leave us, and in this case to learn from those you never met when they were alive, beautiful. I love this. To me, you are helping the person to live on as his or her life becomes a part of you. Fantastic.
Your posts are gifts in the midst of my day Patry, gifts. Thank you.

floots said...

fascinating
i don't collect obits but
in a strange way
i can see why one might
they can be so subjective
or
insultingly objective
depending on the author/paper etc

(spooky that we both chose collecting - albeit in a very different way - for our latest posts) cheers

Lynn Hayes said...

I think Anonymous missed the point, it seems to me that in collecting obituaries you are really honoring the dead and celebrating their life as well. I too am fascinated with obituaries and the lives of people who have passed, and find myself wanting to know more about them.

As always Patry, a sensitive topic beautifully handled.

camera shy said...

what do we really
know of each other
anyway
we
are
noless dead to each other
no more either
really

Rexroth's Daughter said...

I collected a few obits over the years, mostly of poets that I have loved. I do collect poems about death. Each one is always a perfect struggle with not knowing.

I think your collection of obituaries is an honor and tribute to those whose lives and words have touched your heart. It's what makes such a collection sacred.

Kerstin said...

I am intrigued and wonder what other wonderfully weird habits you have??

It seems to me that whatever you touch or write about, you bring life and somehow color to it. You are very perspicacious, Patry, and I am seeing old familiar things in new ways through you. I like that about you.

Thank you, Kerstin

Peter said...

This was really touching. You write with such kindness.

"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning..." - Ecclesiastes

zhoen said...

I read the obits, and I carry every one I know who has died with me every day. I think it's beautiful, memento mori.

Love your writer rules on Write Livlihood. Found a number of them myself, the rest are quite hopeful.

Patry Francis said...

Stephanie: Let me know if you find out anything more about Fahey. I'd love to hear more myself.

lhombre: I've instinctively loved collage without ever seeing it quite this way. Thank you for expanding my vision!

Scot: I wish more obits were personal, that they shared more of that life-essence you describe.

Daphne: At least one person did remember your grandmother--you! And today you passed the thought of her to me and made me wonder what she was like.

Colleen: I do the same when I read an anothology--straight to the bios. Then when I get done with the story, I read it again to put it in context.

marilyn: Glad you took the post in the spirit it was intended. The last thing I want to do is to add to someone's grief.

liz: and your chocolate (?)covered smile is a gift whenever I see it in my comment section. Thanks for visiting!

floots: That's two in a row. Your poem is wonderful. I'm going back to leave a more lengthy comment, but first I want to read it again.

Lynn: Maybe people should leave one line they want in their obituary in their will. Why are wills always about the money and possessions left behind--why not, the wisdom? Just a thought.

blog this: I love comments in the form of poems. Thank you!

r.d.: I like your description of the poems about death. "Each one a perfect struggle of not knowing." Beautiful and succinct.

Kerstin: Thank you for such a lovely comment!

Peter: Thanks for the comment--and the quote from Eccliastes. It points to what I've been seeking to extract from the death notices.

zhoen: your sense of memento mori comes through strongly in your writing. It adds a resonance. Thanks for reading my piece on Jordan's blog!

Soen Joon Sunim said...

There used to be a blog, "Blog of Death," that posted one obituary every day...a very beautiful blog, actually, but I've not checked recently (i.e., in a year) to see if it's still running...

Anna Piutti said...

O-K, when I was sixteen, I took up the family habit to turn to the obit page in the newspaper first thing...Then, after a short while, I decided I just couldn't do that. It makes me too sad and, empathetic as I am, it would become a detrimental habit for me. I'm still grieving about the relatively recent death of a couple of people I loved.

Anna Piutti said...

Oh, and one more trivia...I don't know what it's like in the States but, in Verona, they put up huge obituaries on the walls around town. In Vicenza it's not like that yet...

Patry Francis said...

Soen joon: The blog of death sounds intriguing. I'll have to search for it. There was one in the Boston Globe today about a biologist who spent his life studying squirrels. He used to teach is college class with one one each shoulder.

Anna: I love the idea of Verona hanging huge obituaries on the walls around town; an acknowledgment that a loss effects the entire community. Somehow I'm not surprised that one of my favorite cities would handle death a little more graciously than anywhere else.

Dilys said...

"turn to the obits to find out what my old friends have been up to lately..." LOL and true for many of us.

Absolutely Wowsa post! I write draft obituaries for people getting their affairs in orders, and it's a similar exercise, particularly interesting as a craft to find those memes that will linger for a wider audience.

And to anonymous, I'm so sorry about your brother. I hope you find comfort. In Patry's defense, obituaries and funerals can yield for the observer a distillation of the brevity, meaning, and sweetness of life, if there is more distance, and the grief is not overwhelming.

Clare said...

My mother has a thing about graveyards, which I have, to a lesser extent, inherited.

They are very beautiful, profound places. Particularly the neglected British ones full of weeds and falling-over gravestones. If I am ever buried, I would rather end up somewhere like that, rotting gently back to earth with a comfortable dishevelment.

Patry Francis said...

dilys: I love the concept of someone preparing a draft for their own obituary--especially with your help. We take such car with willing our possessions, but our message, the wisdom or humor that we've gleaned over a lifetime, is not deemed important enough for planning.

Clare: Oh yes! I love graveyards, too--especially old ones. That could even be Weird Habit #3.

ainelivia said...

Hello Patry, I've just read "Everything I know about getting words on paper". Thank you for this, I really needed to read this just now. I've been stuck, oh so stuck for several months, in a lot of ways.

I've copied and printed out Everything on a single sheet of paper and I keep it in my notebook in my bag where I can read the do's and don'ts.

About obits. Right now we have a family problem with our grave plot in Ireland that a stranger has been buried in. It is a very difficult situation which we hope to sort out. I went through the local papers to find the obit of the lady who's been buried in our plot, because I wanted to know something about her and her family, before we approached them. I found that so helpful for me to get a sense of who she was, and not just a stranger in our family's plot. We still haven't managed to locate her relatives, but I know when we do I know something of her life.

Patry Francis said...

ainelivia: glad you found the writing piece helpful.

That definitely sounds like a tricky situation with the stranger in your family plot. However, your sensitivity in dealing with it is evident, and should go a long way.

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