Death is one of the great mysteries. It’s surrounded by theology, theory, speculation and emotion. There are deaths that are thought to be a blessing, a release from a life full of sorrow and pain. There are deaths that mark the end of lives cut short through brutality, chance or mistake in such a way that none can deny the tragedy. There are deaths that are the natural destination of the journey reached at last. Death is the universal leveler. It shows no favouritism or mercy for that matter. Young or old, rich or poor, we are all equal in the eyes of Atropos as she cuts the thread of each life.
For centuries the living have memorialized those passed on through monuments, rites and celebrations. To that end tombstones, national holidays, scholarships, bursaries, schools and streets, bridges and hospitals all carry the names of those who have made their mark on this world, large or small. Stories are told, books are written and names are passed down from generation to generation. General philosophy holds that this phenomenon is for the dead but it is in fact performed by and for the living.
Almost everyday the dead come and we visit. I don’t mean the ghosts that live here…they never leave. My guests come with the arrival of the daily paper. Sometimes their entire lives are laid out for me to see and those are usually the ones who are the most welcome.
The obituary section of the paper is divided into two parts. The first is a small box that lists the basic details of name, age and date of passing. The second part lists the full entry, complete with most of the details pertaining to the passing and if one is lucky the story of the life lived before. Please don’t think I’m a morbid person. I don’t read the obituaries because I take joy in the misery of mankind. A passing of any kind holds tragedy and the death of any child in particular can bring me to tears. That being said, a full life memorialized in an obituary is like a good book thoroughly enjoyed. One is sad to see the end of it but thankful that someone took the time to lovingly craft the contents and then share them with the world.
The obituary of a life well lived and beautifully eulogized is a testimony not only to the dearly departed but to those he or she has left behind. Although it records the death, it reaffirms the life and vision of the protagonist. The names listed, family and friends now left behind or sometimes gone ahead gives evidence to the world of the love both given and received. The mention of hobbies, travels, accomplishments or associations tells a tale of time not just spent but wrung dry of everything it could offer. It may seem odd to seek light where dark is thought to reign but an obituary can be one of the best illustrations of life affirmation to be found. It is the lives of the departed that these notices celebrate, not their deaths. It is proof concrete that despite sorrow and loss someone remembers. It is through those memories that a life, though ended, will continue on as a foundation for those who follow.
One of my favourite obituaries was published last year. It wasn’t very long but it didn’t need to be. The usual information was included but at the end, in lieu of flowers, mourners were asked to add to a garden or send some to a friend. There was a picture included of the deceased. His head was thrown back as his image was caught in mid laughter while he held the hand of a beautiful smiling woman. Although William, or Bill as he was referred to in the notice, was a stranger to me that one shining moment spoke to my heart in a beautiful tribute. In that captured image there were no questions, no mysteries, no tears.
I’m not without reservations; I know that all lives hold some part of those things as well as tedium, insecurity and sorrows. But the course of a life is not defined by the bumps along the way but by the path we open up as we move through the wilderness. I think that Bill’s path was mossy, cobbled and garden lined, full of bird song and a sun so bright the occasional cloud could never linger long. That image, chosen by his children, represents what he engendered and left behind as his legacy. He left love, laughter, flowers and healing. What more can you ask of a man or his life?
When I can, I visit with the dead. It helps to remind me what living should be about.