The title of this blog is drawn from a quip by Benjamin Franklin: "I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up." Although I arise each day without such assurance, I do routinely survey the obituaries that have been published in newspapers and other publications.
This wasn’t always the case. For some time, I read obituaries sporadically at best, typically only when someone famous or infamous was involved. But then I read George Will’s March 23, 2000 column in the Washington Post entitled “Death and the Liveliest Writing” (available in full here). Will lauded a few obituaries originally published in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph and collected in "The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries: A Celebration of Eccentric Lives." The characters he highlighted were, well, characters, and the language the Telegraph’s scribes used to describe their lives was poignant and nuanced at once. Intrigued, I bought the book, consuming it over a long weekend. The engrossing read helped transform an occasional exercise into a hobby. Once I realized that any number of gems might be buried in the day's newsprint, I started digging in earnest. But why, exactly?
In my view, obituaries are an underrated if not neglected niche of the news. Perhaps this is because the notion of regularly reading them strikes some people as ghoulish or a waste of time (don’t we monitor current affairs in order to know what is happening currently?). Perhaps others think of obituaries as little more than monotonous recitations: “X, who did this or was known for that, has died. He was Y years old. The cause of death was Z. He is survived by A, B, and C.” To the patient and curious reader, however, an obituary is an unpredictable adventure. One might learn for the first time that, and how, the subject made some breakthrough that civilization now takes for granted. Or one might get an informative history of the time and place in which the subject made her mark. Or one might be engaged by the subject's unusual personality, views, or other traits. Or one might savor excellent writing, as I did with the Telegraph compilation. For any or all of these reasons, there is something philosophical, in the root sense of the word, in reading about these lives as lived.
In future posts, I’ll note some of the obituaries that catch my eye. I hope you find them interesting too – whether every morning at nine or after.