THE USEFULNESS OF OBITUARIES

WHILE MANY HEAD FIRST TO THE SPORTS OR  crossword page when they have picked up their newspaper (yes, newspapers will  still  be lying outside the door or inside a balcony to be picked up in many parts of the world), I instinctively reach for the Obituaries column of the paper that I read.  Lest you misunderstand me, mine is not a morbid fascination.  On the contrary, reading an obituary is a reminder for me always about the preciousness of our own lives while we are alive, the way we influence others, and how we may be missed or remembered…

THE FRONT PAGE OF A NEWSPAPER MAY REPORT, say, that 67 people were killed in Iraq or Syria. As we down our chai or coffee reading this report, the fact of precious lives lost slips from our memories as easily as the chai or coffee has slid down our throats.  Death degenerates into a piece of statistic soon to be forgotten. Yet when we read an individual obituary insertion or column, particularly an insert from a bereaved family, we soon realize how much the family has lost, and the sense of grief that has befallen them. Many of course may not like to read or hear about death at all.  John Donne, epitomized all of this in his immortal lines :

Any man’s death diminishes me, because 
I am involved in Mankind; And therefore 
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee

Death when spoken of generally, does not, regrettably, affect us personally  in sharp contrast when it is on an individual plane.  Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front  aptly said that the tragedy of war is not that there are deaths but that death itself ceases to be a tragedy.  

OBITUARIES ALSO REMIND US THAT IT  it takes all sorts of people to make up this world and that on an individual plane we all have our pluses and minuses.  Objectively, others would view us “warts and all” and so it should be when we look at others.  (We are still far, far away, before we begin shaking hands with clones in our shop floors and workstations).  It is customary of course, that if one attends a funeral one would only  hear a eulogy : the principle de mortius nil nisi bonum  (of the dead (say) nothing but good ) is here to stay.

IF ANYONE HAS PERFECTED THE FINE ART of writing obituaries, it is Ann Wroe, who writes the  Obituary column for The Economist.  Everyone featured in this column  is assessed with such empathy and objectivity that by the time one has finished reading the piece one is seized with the feeling that one knew the person very well and how he or she influenced the world while alive.  I learnt more about Shammi Kapoor, Veerappan and NT Rama Rao from her column than I did from our desi papers, not to speak of persons as diverse as Bobby Fischer or Estee Lauder that were featured in the column.(Would strongly recommend reading The Economist Book of Obituaries)

MY INTEREST IN OBITUARIES HAS OFTEN made me take a hard look at myself.  Thoughts like whether I would at all be remembered or missed, whether I would leave my own little spheres of influence in the small circle of the world that I inhabit a better place, so on and so forth.  In essence therefore, this interest of mine with obituaries is entirely positive.  I realize that it is not for nothing that even the Koran exhorts believers to remember death several hundred times in a day so that we realize always how precious life is before death snatches it way !
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