Next time you get your hands on a newspaper, flip to the obituaries. I know it’s not an instinctual action. The only person I knew to read the obituary as a habit was my grandfather who used to say, “if I read the death notices and don’t see me in ’em, it’ll be a good day.” We don’t read them unless we have to, but we should. Despite it being respectful to members of our community that went before us, it forces perspective upon its readers. You begin to see what people are remembered for and what was important to them. Here’s what shows up in every obituary:
These are the family you leave behind. Also often included are the family you follow. When someone has been sick for a while, and especially if they leave a lot of survivors, its common to read that he or she, “passed peacefully amongst friends and family.” We can’t choose the circumstances of our death, but if we could, it would be peacefully and amongst friends and family.
It’s surprising to me that the first thing mentioned after names of family is the position they held at the peak of their career. It might be because of the capitalist society that we live in and that we see hard work as supporting the balance of order. Or it might be that the job in which we work is the single most time-consuming part of our lives that we have any say in. Maybe we think that the positions we hold speak to character. I don’t know. All I know is that where you work, how long you work there, and what you achieve in your work have meaning beyond your living years.
Major Life Events
Next in importance is a quick highlight reel: the life-changing events you would not forget if you directed a movie of your life. Where did you go to school? Where did you meet your spouse? When did you get married? How many kids did you have? Of course not everyone has kids, and there are many other huge life events included, like fighting in a war.
What follows next are your passions. Did you have a cause that you supported? Did you achieve something first, or win something? Maybe you have a hobby or a talent. It almost feels like this should be the first thing mentioned after family, right? She left a husband and two children, and when not caring for them she enjoyed painting oil portraits of neighborhood dogs. Perhaps to the casual outsider that seems like nothing but a silly hobby, but it’s that sort of thing that adds peace to our lives. Those little hobbies and passions are our only glimpses into an ethereal existence. In short, doing what you love is heaven on earth.
After all of this, the obituary usually ends with a direction to send flowers and cards to a certain location. I love this. What began with a listing of survivors always ends with a way to help those survivors. Because that’s what obituaries teach you: what parts make up a legacy. What happens in the middle can be remembered in countless ways, but it’s the people we encounter and create and build with and love that are responsible for carrying those memories on. There’s the lesson: while you build your legacy, do not forget those who will carry it.