One of the most important tasks of an obituary writer is to discover the qualities that illuminated the life of an individual in relation to society and the relationships that marked the person’s uniqueness as a living and unreproducible being.
I’m surprised at how often family members of the departed tell me they want no obituary at all. “She was a very private person,” they often give as the reason.
But for even the most private of people, our existence is part of the public record. Documents record our births, marriages, education milestones, divorces, driving privileges, and deaths. We appear, to paraphrase the singer Sting, as statistics in government charts if nowhere else.
Aren’t we so much more than that — more than numbers absorbed in megadata to account for patterns of human life? Our lives may have meaning as part of the mass, but that meaning is not ours; it does not reveal our faces. Whatever spark animated a particular life is extinguished by the numbers.
Obituaries, if written with good will, knowledge, and compassion, do more than document lives. The obituary writer can take inspiration from Charles Dickens, who, as Edmund Wilson argued, dedicated his art to showing the human actualities of those who government bureaucracies consider mere statistics.
One way Dickens did that was by inventing the novel of community, exploring individual experience as a function of human relationships. The life of even the most proudly isolated individual in a Dickens novel (and in the world) finds its meaning in the context of a human society.
Often, the quieter the life lived, the harder it is to see its singularity. But that singularity is always there.
The quietest, most private person I’ve written an obituary for was described in the document sent by the funeral home in one sentence. She was a woman in her 80s, never married, with no direct next of kin. I managed to contact a niece, who told me a bit about her aunt’s life.
She was a shy woman, not skilled socially, but she loved feeling part of the Provincetown community. When she was young, she worked at her family’s store greeting customers. She was a familiar face on Commercial Street, sitting on a bench in front of town hall, passing the time with whomever was nearby.
In later years she could not take care of herself and moved to a residence in Sandwich. In the morning, she went to a nearby coffee shop for a bite. In the 10 years before she died, she became a familiar smiling face in Sandwich, as she had been in Provincetown, quietly confirming her value to the community just by her happiness to be there.
Had she lived a generation later, there probably would have been a diagnosis, padding the statistics about people on the spectrum of impaired social skills. But she was more than that. She was herself. She lived her life. And the public record — that is, the community newspaper — has a responsibility to make that life visible and valued.