Sunday, January 15, 2006

Personalizing death

When you get past 50 years old, thoughts of death are much more prevalent - not just of our own mortality, but also those we know and love. I know for my mom and her friends, attending funerals is almost a full-time job these days. When we were members of the Episcopal church, they told us the reason their funeral services were so similar was that death is the great equalizer. Whether king or pauper, each would receive basically the same funeral.

Of course, when it comes to obituaries, that theory does not hold. Your obituary usually is in direct correlation to how famous you were in life. And if you have the misfortune to die the same day a really famous person dies, I guess your death would be quite overshadowed.

I spent yesterday afternoon, still sans computer, watching a seminar on Lincoln, one of my favorite subjects. Specifically, the participants were lecturing on his assassination. I started wondering who else died on April 15, 1865. They are long forgotten, I suppose, and the date lives on primarily as the day Lincoln died.

Up here in Maine, I enjoy reading the obituaries. In Memphis, my hometown, the city is too large to have detailed obituaries (unless you're famous, of course), so the facts are sparse and the life (many times the remarkable life) is reduced to some dates, a place of employment, principal survivors, and funeral arrangements. When my grandfather died in Memphis, I can remember going with my sister to the newspaper, asking for a longer obituary for him, hopefully with a photo - something to intimate his unique life journey. They acquiesced, and ended up printing a great article about Paw-Paw's days as a radio pioneer and his other accomplishments.

Here in Ellsworth, a town of about 5000 in the winter, The Ellsworth American goes whole hog on obits. The local paper knows how to publish a life story. These stories were written by loved ones and are in amazing detail. The people mentioned here have lived, for the most part, ordinary lives - but they did live and love and had passions and interests and did make their mark on the world.

An obit from December especially struck me. For one thing, it was her age - 53. It says she died of cancer. I like it when they print the cause of death in this case. I am annoyed when a relatively young person dies and the obit says, "died unexpectedly..." Of what? I guess it's none of my business, but it leaves a hole in the story. For each obit is a story.

The 53-year-old, though, died of cancer. Here are some of the things said about her:

Janice was a vibrant and beautiful woman who lived her life with audacious courage and no small amount of wit and wisdom. Loved by many, Janice explored many areas. She could play clarinet, banjo, bongo drums and loved to dance. She loved music from doo-wop to classical. Janice also abbled in poetry and short stories. She did many kind of handiwork, including basketry. Janice was an accomplished decorator and created beautiful flower arrangements...

What a remarkable and talented person! I wish I had known her.

The center of her life was her soul-mate husband, Bucky, her children, and her extended family. The sanctuary for the family was her very unique and lovely home. There was always something wonderful cooking and several projects underway at Janice's house. Friends were welcomed and they came frequently, and never left emptyhanded. Generosity was a value that Janice lived by. She listened, offered advice, and provided any support available to her for a friend in need including money, transportation, lodging, clothes, jewelry, food, hugs, tears and laughter. Janice loved people and was geninely interested in the people she met. She was guileless and trusting and offered assistance whenever she saw an opening.

I read that and think of the hole there must be in the lives of those who had loved her.

She attended many births both in the family and with friends. New life was as high a priority for her as living life to the fullest. Janice held life as a whirlwind adventure and she never wasted a moment. She looked and leaped for all that caught her attention.

An amazing woman, wouldn't you say? It goes on to say that in the last two years, the only regret voiced through her surgeries and cancer treatments was the fact that she wouldn't be able to give her children and grandchildren the beautiful Christmas she wanted them to have. So the obit states at the end that in lieu of flowers, those wishing to can make a contribution to a fund to provide her children and grandchildren with a beautiful Christmas, Janice's last wish.

After I initially read that obit, I cut it out of the paper. Every time I read it, I shed a few tears. Without this full, personal obituary, I never would have known the name of Janice Louise Hastings Maddocks, for it, like other "ordinary" people, would have been relegated to a small paragraph which would not have done justice to her "extraordinary" life.

So in a sense, the local Ellsworth paper DOES adhere to the theory that death is the great equalizer. Those who are NOT famous or infamous are given the same treatment (in this case, a whole column from top to bottom of the page, with photo) as others. I like that.

1 comment:

Tif said...

Get this--the Memphis newspaper now CHARGES for obits, by the line. The only freebies they give are the very basic--name, town, age, funeral home. You have to pay just to have your survivors listed!