MY NAME IS MARION and I am an obit addict.
The first daily fix is online, where I scan the screen for news of who died the day before. In the afternoon I get a booster shot reading the newspapers — mostly, I admit, for those little paid death notices, which, incredibly, some otherwise respectable news organizations do not run online.
I hope that mine is a modest addiction. But I’m not sure. Sundays I go on a bender with three newspapers. I recline with them, selecting one obit at a time from the page like a bon-bon from a box. I linger over each as it melts away my wonder at what it is that everybody in this country does with their lives. That’s why I love the obits: They remind me every day that in the short years of a long life, we can become so much.
Perhaps my favorite obit to date was after the 1998 death of the composer Robert Merrill, the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who couldn’t read music, but who wrote “People,” “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” “Mambo Italiano,” “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round,” and hundreds of other songs, all of which he composed on a five-and-dime xylophone. After his songs earned him more than $250,000, he bought a more expensive xylophone. It cost $6.98. His one rule was that every tune he wrote had to be hummable.
All that in just one obit: Just keep things hummable. What an admirable ethic. After reading that, I swiped my 5-year-old daughter’s xylophone and plunked it on my desk to encourage me to try to do that every day.
Granted, most obits leave out a lot. We don’t know what kind of car the person drove, or if he fed the birds in the winter. But if you read those little paid death notices, you can frequently get a real sense of who misses the dead and why. It’s like getting the other side of the story: the ire of those left behind over the newspaper not rating the deceased worthy of a news item; the thank yous from the charities; the nods from colleagues; the see-you-laters from the kids. It’s a truer measure of worth than anything I know.
Certainly it’s a sweeter fruit of one’s labors than what sometimes gets passed off as just rewards.
Go to your college reunion, for example and take a good look. At the arrival scene of my recent 20th I stood in the shade at my small liberal arts college, watching the caravan of sport utility vehicles groaning under the weight of windsurfers, mountain bikes, sea kayaks and jogging strollers — and at least one pair of fertility-assisted triplets — and wondered what battles had rendered this massive display of spoils. What had we conquered? Had we written any hummable tunes?
These lean days in America have made some of us a little woozy from wondering about the value of labor and whose labor is actually valued. When I feel this way, my obit addiction sobers me right up. Right there in black and white are the facts of a life. And with them I can choose my heroes as I run the bases of a person’s years and hear the cheering, see those long strides of human endeavor, recognize those great failings and those long last looks of good-bye.
So, give me a triple. And, please, don’t offer me a cure.
From time to time I am running the copy from essays I’ve read on NPR’s All Things Considered. This is one of those. Originally airing in boom times, it has been slightly modified to reflect the recession.