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.

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§ 17 Responses to The Obituary We All Need (To Write)

  • […] The Obituary We All Need (To Write) […]

  • Margaret says:

    Thank you Jane for such an interesting read.
    My Irish mother died in August 2015 aged 91 years and my Irish father died in January 1975 aged 67 years.
    Both parents came to England in 1954 like a lot of Irish at that time. I was born in 1955 and my brother in 1959.
    I have fond memories of them both and I feel my brother and I grew up in a loving home, be it that times were hard.
    When mum was 90 years old I compiled an A3 photojournal of hard copy photos depicting mum’s life which of course incorporated a photographic keepsake of our family’s life story. I found the process quite therapeutic.
    Although mum was a good living and very religious lady she instructed us before she died that she didn’t want the priest saying anything about her that there was a tendency to make everyone sound like saints. We respected her request.
    My brother wrote the short obituary in the local newspaper.
    I have gathered materials for my own memoir and think at some stage I may incorporate information from the photo journal.
    I suppose the sound of our parent’s voice, although well remembered, we cannot replace.
    Thank you Jane for allowing me that reflection.

  • Yes. I taught for many year and the assignment I gave my students (which they were required to write in class but not hand in) was a Thank You to someone they cared about. There was more to it than that. I told a story to introduce the assignment because I always told stories in class to introduce a writing assignment (or before and during and after reading). Celebrate those small things that radiate through our lives and matter most of all…

  • Karen Martha says:

    It all sounds so pat as you describe it–giving our parents their due–and we all have parents. But some lives are more complicated than that. What about the step-parent who stood in and didn’t do a good job of that. Or a parent who died young and you know so little about him/her? What you’re suggesting implies the privilege of two loving parents in an intact family. What a world it would be if we all had that. karensdescant.com

    • Dear Karen,
      I am so sorry your childhood was painful and that this blog post causes you pain. Not all of us had happy childhoods and even in those “happy” years most of us suffered occasionally or often at the hands of cruel people charged with caring for us lovingly.

      Perhaps you do this author a disservice if you suggest this is about privilege. The story I used to tell about my “thank you” writing assignment was about my parents, but it could just as easily be about anyone we know and care about, anyone whose life is small but had an impact on our own. I had students who were in foster care and students whose parent was dying at that time. Consider another relative or a friend. Consider the kindness of stranger in an unironic way. There are people all alone in the world, but sometimes, if they think hard about it, they find they are not quite so alone. And if another is alone, would you begrudge someone’s gratitude toward a childhood friend, pastor, or neighbor? A writer I met at a workshop told me the family up the street had saved her life, if only for offering a model of what a good family could be (in contrast to the abusive family she was born to). She was planning to have a child and said their example was what made parenting seem possible.

      The goal is to find and highlight the goodness, even if it was scarce.

    • Your interpretation is very interesting because as I say, the standard obit seems to conspire against the nuances of real human beings. He used his voice to rule, my father! Think about that for a moment. I’d argue there’s some complication there! In any event, I really think we all need to write about the people we grieve, which means everyone and it means every kind of relationship. I am writing about a relative now whom I never knew and you’re right, it’s a challenge. Have you read the Auster book I mention? Not a story of two loving parents in an intact family. But like I said, we’re still moved to write. Hope you are moved to write about whatever situation is/was your own.

  • Marian Rogers says:

    Jeanne, this is a beautiful remembrance of your father, and record of your journey through grief. I love your notice of your father’s collection of sounds, his unique cough, his use of his voice to rule. I lost my mother and father over the last five years and wrote newspaper obituaries for both. In each, I had only a sentence left after covering the standard details to hint at the real person. Like you, I am still writing about them both, and still hear their voices. In sympathy and thanks for this essay, Marian

  • […] morning I was reading the Brevity blog, one of my favorite sites. Jeanne Bonner explains “The Obituary We All Need (To Write)” citing the one she wrote for her father. At 250 words it utterly failed to capture her father, the […]

  • Your comment about an obituary making the deceased sound like a saint. How to bring balance to our memory.
    I think there is also a distinction to be made between a public obituary without space constraints and an obituary one writes for honouring and preserving ones memory of the person.

  • Thanks for this. I had similar experience when ex-husband, a dear friend, died. It seemed criminal that there was barely a mention of him in any publication, partially due to the cost of using a lot of words. Then I found out that places like familysearch.org (free) and other geneaolgy sites allow postings of memories, and photos, so I plan to put my long obit about him there, so that anyone searching for him will find it in generations to come.

  • dbonnerthorpowercom says:

    Lovely. Thank you, Jeanne.
    ATB…

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