For 60 seconds or so this past summer, I found myself on the dark side of a capsized kayak being swept along in treacherous, frigid waters. My eventual survival was a mixed blessing, for the whole experience had the predictable but unfortunate effect of intensifying my preoccupation with death. In the wee hours of the night, as I find myself replaying my desperate underwater misadventure, those vividly murky images are invariably swept away by an irresistible current of thought that swirls around the hard fact of my mortality and questions about how I will be remembered, for how long and by whom.
Not coincidentally, I have begun paying more attention to obituaries, and the obits I find most intriguing are the ones in my monthly Harvard Magazine. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, they are a study in what constitutes the full and fascinating life. “Born and raised in China, where his father was a missionary...he received the Bronze Star...and was also a prolific playwright and the author of a number of treatises on physics.” “His book...is considered one of the most influential sociological texts of the 20th century.” “His paintings and etchings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, the Chicago Art Institute and the 1939 New York World’s Fair.” “He was a retired businessman...a skilled carpenter, electrician and plumber...[whose] hobbies included boating, photography, antiques, shell and stamp collecting, and the weaving of Nantucket baskets.”
Then there are others into whose lives our glimpse is truncated and therefore seems all the more telling. These one-line obits say the most. “He was a retired partner in the law firm of Cosgrove, Cramer, Rindge & Barnum.” “He was a systems analyst on Wall Street and a car-racing enthusiast.” “He was a potato farmer in Dresden, Me., for some 40 years.” “She leaves her husband, Harvey, and two daughters, Cornelia and Amy.” Sometimes more isn’t better; it’s just more.
I am of two minds about obituaries. They are artificial, carefully selected and sanitized lives. After all, what can we learn about a person from an obit? Yet their very nature as craft is part of what makes them fascinating. The method for writing an obit is not unlike the technique many of us are tempted to use to approach and evaluate our lives: the steady accumulation of pursuits and accomplishments. Obits shed light on the very process of living by suggesting the way in which each life is a series of choices, an attempt to achieve fulfillment by cobbling together the pieces at hand.
Asking what we can know from an obituary is like asking what we can know from a person’s clothes, job title, neighborhood or car. We believe we can gain a representative glimpse into a person and then extrapolate beyond such external features. Yet obituaries invite us to pose the basic question, How do we represent an entire life in a few lines? How does one anatomize and reassemble—literally re-member—a life? Harvard’s obits begin with an indication of whether the deceased graduated cl, mcl or scl—cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude. How could this possibly be of import at such a moment? The fact is, in the realm of the obit, it’s fair game. It is part of the winnowing process that comprises both the living and the remembering of a life. One person’s chaff is another’s grain.
Life’s transience is what yokes everyone who has ever lived and is also what makes each life singular. My increasing—some have said morbid—preoccupation with the astonishingly temporary nature of my own life does not serve me well in many respects—it can distract and detract from LIVING NOW and making the most of it. But I cannot—or, perhaps, will not—put it out of my mind for very long. I recognize this as a fault, a species of character defect, especially if I fail to use it as a springboard to savoring life more richly. Time, which always wins, will tell if I or any of us make the most of our mortality.
Yet the mystery remains: a life can seem so long and expansive in one breath and so ridiculously brief and contracted in the next. Is it all in the words we choose to describe it? Obituaries prefer noteworthy accomplishments to meaningful relationships. But what determines our true and lasting legacy, or whether or not we achieve one? Is it merely a trick of language that, in the end, separates the distinguished life from the forgettable one? Is it something we’re born with or something fashioned by a certain turn of events? For all their limitations, obituaries speak to me about authorship: we may not write our own obituary, but by the way we live, the choices we make and how we love we are creating a life suitable for memory.
On life’s canvas, the broad strokes of obituary style—the tendency to equate a person with her titles, hobbies and accomplishments—can obscure the finer detail that gives depth and meaning to the whole. Every day most of us pass by, interact with or even live with people whose deepest questions and desires are a mystery to those who care about them—if, indeed, anyone cares. Though it seldom figures into the summary artifice of obituary, unlocking the little-known truths of each life—the private joys, the hopes unfulfilled, the fears unshared—is not a bad way to approach the ongoing and unvarnished craft of living.