When I was a local newspaper reporter early in my career, I was surprised to discover that I loved writing obituaries. And I even seemed to have a knack for them, according to my editors. This was due mostly to a chance combination of personality traits: I didn’t mind talking about death, which I saw as a simple fact of life. (I was already becoming a Buddhist then.) Perhaps relatedly, I was good at talking to grieving people. (Fact: You might feel uncomfortable approaching a grieving person, but grieving people love to talk about their recently deceased loved one, so ask away!) And I have a pretty good sense of story as a writer, so I loved weaving facts into an obituary, the ultimate story—the beginning, middle, and end are as clear as can be.
This is why I get choked up every time I see the front page of The New York Times from earlier this week, the May 24 issue that simply lists the names of the nearly 100,000 people who had died of Covid-19 as of that date. (We’ve since passed that horrific milestone number.) The graphic impact is stark, and if you look closer, the emotional impact is even greater: The names come with chosen lines from their locally published obituaries, the exact sort of obituaries I was once honored with writing twenty years ago. “Alan Lund, 81, Washington, conductor with ‘the most amazing ear’ … Theresa Elloie, 63, New Orleans, renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages …”
Of course, you can never sum up a person in a few hundred words, much less one line. But the right line (“making detailed pins and corsages” gets me) does a lot. This is a central tenet of writing—choosing telling details. If you talk to grieving people, you’ll find they have an innate sense for these details. They tell perfect stories to illuminate the lost. They get right to their loved one’s essence. You can read The New York Times’s extraordinary 9/11 obituary project to get a taste of this.
When my dad died three years ago this week, I remember my first clear thought after the sobbing subsided: Oh, so this is how his story ends. This was a comforting thought. He had struggled for most of his life with PTSD from serving in the Vietnam War, and, as a result, with alcoholism. There had been some close calls with true disaster and tragedy. But in the last decade of his life, he had made a remarkable peace with his war experience. A man who had spent most of his adult years refusing to talk about his service realized, in the end, that embracing it would heal him. He dedicated his final years to recognizing the service of his fellow veterans—and, of course, thus, his own. He was a leader at the local VFW, where, even in his 70s, he was the young one serving coffee to the World War II vets. He joined an Honor Guard squad that performed funerals for veterans. He volunteered for Honor Flights, which recognize groups of veterans. This was how it ended for him: a peaceful heart attack, somewhere between a school football game’s flag-raising ceremony and his Thursday Honor Guard shift. Perfect.
Obituaries are even more important now, during this pandemic. In some cases, they may be the only way to publicly mourn someone when a proper funeral is not possible. They also remind us, as The New York Times so beautifully rendered this week, that each loss counts. Each means symphonies that will no longer be conducted, pins and corsages that will not be made, flags that will not be raised. Each marks the ending of a specific story, one that should not be obscured by a terrible statistic.