The Obituary We All Need (To Write)
January 27, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
When my father died last month, I had just enough room in his obituary to say he was a masterful gardener, had had four children, and once worked as an engineer on the Apollo space missions. But there wasn’t nearly enough room to reflect how he lived. I couldn’t mention that he was born on the kitchen table of his family’s home or that he chided me for not seeing the movie Schindler’s List, which he hissed was “seminal.” Not to mention his vast repertoire of sounds – clicking, clucking, whistling – used to express, “Here I am,” “not now” or “that’s enough.”
And it got me thinking that each individual life contains so many facets and experiences. To survive life on Earth for 85 years, as he did – or even many fewer years – you deserve more than a few lines about where you worked and how you died. You deserve a proper tribute.
What’s more, if you’re someone who’s survived the death of a loved one and you do any kind of writing, you have an acute need to use that skill to honor the person lost. And the form of writing known as an obituary is familiar to almost everyone. So I began to write the obit I thought my father deserved, and it challenged me, as a memoirist, to figure out what was unique about him – but also what’s worthy about each person.
I also had to understand why I so desperately wanted to write it.
I returned to the 250 words I’d written for the local paper, which seemed so few. An actual obituary, I concluded, isn’t for what makes someone unique. It’s quite standard. Not that the newspaper dictates rules, but you feel obliged to simply list one’s profession, loved ones and a few accomplishments. So I’d omitted that when I was growing up, the youngest of four daughters, he could rule by voice alone, using it to entertain, to instruct, to praise – or to chastise and spar.
No mention of his devilish sense of humor, shaped by comedians like Jonathan Winters, or that he dared me to wear two different shoes to school for a week when I was in 6th grade.
Plus, the standard obituary allows for no nuance. The person you’re eulogizing in print has been transformed into a saint.
That was frustrating — and I think now I know why. The exercise wasn’t long enough – or authentic enough — to assuage the grief. The act of contemplating his life’s achievements (and his idiosyncrasies, good or bad) through writing is deeply satisfying. It’s like the written version of the Catholic wake, and it reminds me why certain types of family memoirs are so popular.
Writing about loss – in my diary or on Facebook – feels useful. It’s also revealed a tribe of grievers that has become my own. Some of them lost parents or other family members at the dawn of the Covid era, and weren’t able to properly mourn. And they are desperate to memorialize their loved ones, but perhaps not in the habit of writing, which could offer solace. Hence my obsession with re-writing this obit.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Right now, I’d amend that statement to read, “I should not talk so much about my father if there were anybody else whom I’d studied so much.”
And I wanted the obit to reflect the full shape of those studies – not just the marquee moments. The experience of witnessing his decline brought into fine relief tiny things, as if the specter of death sharpened my skills of observation. Like in the final year of his life when words only trickled out of him, I found even his cough sounded distinctive. After a lifetime of hearing him conduct vigorous discussions and hum old tunes on the stairs (he especially liked, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), it was all I had of his voice.
Did you know your father’s cough – or your mother’s – is unique?
If I am honest, I wanted that original obituary to make up for what went unsaid. And so much went unsaid, long before he languished for a year under the pall of end-stage blood cancer. I am mindful of his favorite play, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” about the saga of an Irish-American family during one hot day in 1912 where the grieving wife notes “the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.”
I believe he thought a lot about what life does to us. Is that unique or special?
No. Not special enough to merit the kind of long, lavish obit you read about octogenarian starlets and Nobel Laureates.
But there is something special here, and it’s how I feel about him.
What looms large isn’t the specificity of his life – that he was an engineer by vocation as well as occupation or that he gardened religiously – but rather what looms large is his importance to me.
In my mind, he’s akin to Gabriel Conroy’s father from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” an unseen presence whose influence is powerfully felt. Indeed, I could quote my father all day, like he’s some mashup of Jesus, William Shakespeare, JFK and Humphrey Bogart. Which probably says more about me than about him.
When he fell ill last year and my mother struggled to care for him, I had the belated realization that my parents had been superheroes all of my life – in other words, at the exact moment their super powers had begun to wane. Not because they were perfect parents but because they were the architects of nearly everything I am.
Writing has given me a way to express this revelation. And it’s the real reason I need to rewrite his obit here. I dare say I am not alone. Because our parents – and perhaps grandparents or other caregivers – are the headliners of our lives. They are famous, maybe only to us, but that feels real, doesn’t it? And it means everyone’s parent deserves a long, full, detailed obituary, in an attempt to get at the enormity behind this primal relationship.
I think of Paul Auster’s memoir of his father, The Invention of Solitude; much about his father’s life wasn’t special. In fact, Auster was gripped not by conventional grief when he learned of his loss, but rather “the realization that my father had left no traces.”
“Even before his death, he had been absent,” he writes.
Yet Auster is still immediately moved to write about his father because our parents – even in their absence – leave such a deep impression.
“The past is radiant,” Patricia Hampl writes. “It sheds the light of the lived life.”
And now, the past that included my father seems especially radiant, as I long for anything that will shed light on the life he lived. Attempting to write the obit I thought he deserved – both here and in my diary — has allowed me to bask in that radiant past and has performed a sacred, necessary task: Taking stock of who he was, with the hope of sharing these thoughts with others.
Which means we all need to find ways to write remembrances of our lost loved ones, if writing is to help us make sense of the human condition.
As a writer and a teacher of writing, I embrace the practices of writing regularly and maintaining a record of one’s thoughts, ideally through a journal.
From what I’ve observed of the tribe of grievers that took me in, this message is so critical for anyone experiencing grief.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She’s won a 2022 NEA translation grant for a collection of Italian short stories she’s translating. You can read her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.