The recent death
of a good friend led me to ponder the nature of obituaries. In Ann Hood’s novel The Obituary Writer, the main character has the ability to bring the deceased to life through her writing. People travel long distances with the stories of their loved ones because they know the writer will deliver an obituary that reveals the true nature of the person who has passed. Her obituaries bring readers to tears.
These days obituaries are a listing of birth and death dates; of accomplishments, awards and organizations; of family who have passed before and those that remain. None of these facts alone give the reader insight into the character of the deceased. Few papers, in print or online, offer an “old-style” obituary. One that I know of is the Delta Independent of Delta, Colorado. They give a fuller picture of the deceased by publishing often lengthy obits that mention small, insightful, facts.
“…he dreamed of owning his own ranch.”
“She was drawn to the nursing field due to her illness.”
“She moved to San Diego where she built airplanes.”
These seemingly innocuous details lend humanity to the stark facts of life and death. They each could be the basis of a story, perhaps even a novel. Many writers do biographies of their characters. I have heard this suggested at writers conferences and read it as advice in writer’s magazines. But if your bio is only a string of facts, your character will never have a full life. I’m thinking of writing not bios of my characters, but obituaries that reflect the most important details of their lives—the enduring dreams and life changing moments. It seems to me that it is the little things that individualize and surprise us.
As for my friend— he was an avid historian who rode horses until his knees gave out.
And we will all miss him.