Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dead to the world

You know how people read different sections of the newspaper - some people read the business pages, others read sports, others focus on the editorial pages, or the arts?

I read the obituaries.

No, seriously. Every single day, after I've checked out the cartoons and weather in the New York Times (and vaguely skimmed the headlines), I will turn to the obituaries section and spend a good ten to fifteen minutes reading up on who died the previous day. Let other people follow stocks or Angelina Jolie's love life - I follow Death.

Thinking about it, there are a number of reasons that I like reading the obits. First, there's something about them, as news, that feels unbiased - this is not some flavour of the month thing, some combination of media frenzy and Republican spin - the facts here are accurate, and certainly the people featured have no vested interests in projecting a certain image. Dead people are really dead - they're not in there for the ratings.

Second, there's something about obituaries that seems more permanent, that puts the news in its proper perspective. Despite the NYT's tendency to fill its obit pages with some fairly obscure people, you can't help feeling that Death is a kind of filter, winnowing the chaff of everyday trivia from the grain of what truly mattered. Public obituaries are, in a very local and myopic sense, the judgement of history - what is newsworthy here is not an event but rather the whole life of the person leading up to it. This is the scale that human achievement should be measured on.

Even the more obscure obituaries serve this 'historical' purpose, by the way. If the purpose of history is to help us learn from the past, then the very obscurity of the people listed on that page in the New York Times can serve as both an Ozymandiacal reminder of the insignificance of even the most dramatic events of our day, as well as an affirmation of the unchanging nature of man's ambition. To read some of these obituaries is to see the past hold up a mirror to the present, to recognise that our capacity for scandal is not new and that power, sex and greed have always led to uproar and downfall, even in times that we, in our new found arrogance, now consider innocent.

Third, obituaries are strictly one-time things. Any given person will only die once, after all, so if you miss his / her obituary on the day it comes out, you're never going to get to see it again. This means that there's a sense of urgency to obituaries (ironically enough) that there isn't to much of the other news we read. You know more innocent people are going to be killed in Iraq, you know some new revelation about the Bush administration's complete disregard for due process is going to surface, you know that George Clooney is going to be seen at a restaurant with some other starlet and we're all going to pretend we're interested - but miss the edition that carries the news of Milosz's death, and it could be months before you know that one of your favourite poets of all time is lost to us forever.

Finally, I am always astounded by the democracy of death, by the easy camaraderie it makes possible. Saints and murderers, poets and politicians, pop-stars and scientists all rub shoulders on the obit page - it is the one section of the newspaper that remains a testament to the sheer breadth and scope of the human enterprise, of the infinite variety of things that human beings are capable of. What was it Shakespeare said:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

You know how people dream of getting their picture in the paper? The Times obituaries is the section I'm eventually gunning for.



meditativerose said...

Well, all that's fine ... but do you really need all those reasons to explain why in your case, an obit would be better than a picture in the paper?


DoZ said...

My grandfather used to be a big fan of the obits. I don't think it was a life-long obsession. But ever since I was old enough to know what the obits were, and to note my grandfather's penchant for them, I saw him read the obits religiously, noting with sadness the appearance of one more friend or acquaintance.
I see you have a head start.
Personally, I prefer the Sunday Times' wedding and engagement announcements. Every week, that's my 2 minutes of giving thanks to the powers that be. I haven't yet tired of telling myself every week, 'There but for the grace of God, go I'.

Veena said...

What was that random movie in which someone said something about combining the obit section and the real estate section of the NYT? That way, some of us might find decent apartments. You sure you don't have any real estate in mind?

Falstaff said...

MR: Whatever. You realise I'm gunning for a picture in the obit section, right?

Doz: Ah, yes, wedding announcements. See, it's not so much fun when it becomes 'There but for the grace of bizarre temperament, totally unrealistic relationship expectations and basic incompatibility with any other member of the human race go I'. Know how you feel though - if I don't make it to the obit section by the time I'm 50, my back-up plan is the personals section of the London Review of Books - which is, IMHO, the best thing about that periodical.

veena: I think it was When Harry Met Sally. No, no. The right movie quote is (as always) Woody Allen - The bit about death being the most effective way to cut down on your expenses. Or the scene where he insists on buying Annie a whole bunch of books about Death because Death is very important to him.

DoZ said...

Falstaff, thanks! Just checked out the personals in LRB. Highly entertaining :) This is the one I found the most amusing (the others were too disturbing):
Oxford based artist M (37) seeks Donnish M (60+). Lack of television considered a bonus. Box no. 02/03

PS: Do see your point about "bizarre temperament, totally unrealistic relationship expectations and basic incompatibility with any other member of the human race." Since I don't see myself on or the LRB Personals (I don't think I'd lose that many inhibitions even by 67+, but who knows) Until I do, obits it will have to be...

Anonymous said...

"The Times obituaries is the section I'm eventually gunning for."

And, no doubt, you will eventually make it.

However what is interesting is the fact that you want you want to be in the same place where every other , in your words, cretin ends up.

Inkblot said...

So,you fame hungry person,are deathwishes fashionable these days?

Falstaff said...

Doz: You're welcome.

Anonymous: Who, me? Associate with cretins? Over my dead body. Oh. Ah.

Inkblot: I hope not - if they are, I'm going to have to start enjoying life. Note also that I don't actually have a death wish - I'm not in a hurry to get into the obits, I'm just saying that when I do die it'd be nice if someone other than the hungry alsatian next door noticed.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

" ... pick up the paper, read the obits / If I'm not there, I know I'm not dead / so I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed"

I'd rather have the breakfast, thank you all the same.


Shruthi said...

I used to be a regular reader of the Obits too, once upon a time - and not for any of the sublime reasons that you have mentioned :) I donno why I was so drawn to it! Much later, I learnt that my sis also had been secretly and guiltily reading the obits, adn finally we reached a stage where we would compare notes! Gross? ;) I don't even remember when and why I lost that habit...

Falstaff said...

shruthi: ya, well. To be honest, it's not as though I started reading the obits for any of these reasons. It's just that retrospective rationalisation is something of a specialty of mine.