Obituaries Are Life Stories

One of the important features of a newspaper, for older folks anyway, is the obituary section. The joke is to check and see if “your” name is listed there. Ha, ha. But in truth, the purpose is to see if a former neighbor, or someone who’s lost touch, or a local person – known but not an intimate – is deceased and what is said about them.

What goes into an obituary is interesting.  When the subject had a hand in it the detail is better.  If the survivors wrote it then they will include some of what the person had talked about most… “Did I ever tell you about the time I…?”

Years ago I read a long obituary about a WWII veteran who had come home to the family farm near a small town, been called back to serve in Korea as so many were, then returned home again.  This time his service was to his family and his community. He married, had children, prospered, served on boards and commissions in his hometown, and saw his children grow up to be successful, happy adults, also serving their communities.  Yes, all this was in the man’s obituary.  He probably helped to write it and it stands out in my memory as someone who lived a really good, fulfilling life.  We all wish for that.

The reader’s eye is drawn to something else in the obituary section: symbols that recognize the person’s membership in various organizations, or the American flag.  The flag identifies veterans who served during our various wars, conflicts and actions. Nowadays more and more of these flag-marked obituaries are for men and women who served in the Korean Conflict.  In a few years the Vietnam veterans will fill the pages.

As for those WWII veterans who are passing away by huge numbers now, there was something else to mark their service.  In some cases it was stored away, lost or even purposely destroyed. It was the Honor Roll erected in small and large communities listing the men and women who were serving from that area.  My own home town placed a large board with names (the Honor Roll) in front of the post office and left it up until long after the truce was signed to end the Korean Conflict.  No one seems toHonor Roll faceknow where it is anymore.  In my adopted small town the glass-covered list of names was placed in front of the fire hall.  Some say it is now somewhere in the American Legion building, but no one can find it.

Some larger towns and cities erected more permanent tributes, some were etched into concrete and will always be there to prove the pride of the community.

Other even larger permanent tributes can be found near the battlegrounds of Europe and the Pacific.  Another is on the Mall in Washington, D.C,. where a sprawling memorial was erected, a bit late, perhaps, but it’s there now.

However, individual tributes/memorials – whether for veterans or not – are the brief biographies in the daily newspapers.  They can capture a glimpse of the whole person. Called “obituaries,” they make good starting points for genealogists and biographers. But since few people have books written about them, these obituaries must suffice as the story of a life.

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3 thoughts on “Obituaries Are Life Stories

  1. In acquiring the names and info for my Farewell Salutes, I am often dismayed by a lot of the obits I come across. As you say, it was their life story. But I’ll find endless lists of relatives, down to each and every g-great grandchild and at the bottom, it says, “WWII veteran” or “Military honors will be performed”. I’m horrified that the family feels their names in the newspaper is important than the person’s service and life history!

  2. So true. Perhaps we should each take a few minutes to write our own stories before they are needed. What would we say? I think the experiences we have living at the limit – such as in battle – would be there.

  3. Quite right – I now find the obits one of the most fascinating sections of the paper, even for people I know nothing about. A whole life condensed into a few words – quite a sobering thought, but what emerges is often very inspiring.

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