Looking For Good News? Turn To Obit Page

May 1, 2019

If you are combing the newspaper for profound truths, the obituaries are the place to start. Every one of them presents an inescapable fact of our lives: They end. Obituaries also affirm life and the varieties it takes. She loved drag racing. He was married nine times. In 1962, she served as Junior Miss Ohio. I recently read the obituary of Dr. Norman Talalay, a molecular pharmacologist. Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, he was 9 in 1933 when his family used fake Haitian passports to flee the Nazis. At the height of his career at Johns Hopkins, Talalay did the research that brought broccoli into the limelight as a potential cancer preventative, doubling its sales and making national news of George H.W. Bush’s antipathy for the vegetable. And he was a regular bit player in the films of John Waters, playing a porn patron in “Polyester” and a cabdriver in “Hairspray.” Heather Lende of the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska, wrote a book about the joys writing about the dead, “Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons From a Small-Town Obituary Writer.” Obituaries, she said, are “downright inspirational.” Lende’s skill is finding details that reanimate the dead on the page. In her obituary of Evelyn Arbuckle, Lende described how the Ohio woman moved to Alaska in 1976 after surviving a plane crash that killed her husband and the pilot. She lived for two days on rainwater and blueberries, “singing hymns to ward off bears.” My writing about the dead grew out of grief. I buried my father and a stillborn baby in my 20s. I was in my 30s when my husband died of AIDS. I was a fledgling personal essayist then, but already my subject was dead people. I found not just relief but joy in spending time in my head with the people I’d lost and bringing them to life on the page. Sad, yes, but morbid, no; somehow, life-affirming. Writing about the dead doesn’t always illuminate the best aspects of humanity. Take James “Whitey” Bulger, a gangster. His obit in The New York Times reported Bulger’s rules: “Never sell angel dust to children or heroin in the neighborhood, trust only the Irish, never lie to a friend or partner, and above all, never squeal to the authorities.” An obituary distills the essence of a life. New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote this about Prince: “With deep bedroom eyes and a sly, knowing smile, he was one of pop’s ultimate flirts: a sex symbol devoted to romance and pleasure, not power or machismo.” In the Los Angeles Times, Geraldine Baum wrote this about Jackie Onassis: “She remained that Mona Lisa face that you could look at endlessly and see flashes of all her past faces — the sweet girl in riding jodhpurs, the First Lady in a tiara, the tear-smeared widow, the pampered wife. ” I’ve written two “books of the dead”: portraits of people who once were part of my life, including my mother and father, Philip Roth, David Bowie, a Realtor, a house cleaner, friends of my kids, and scores of others. I have had to use the words “suicide” and “overdose” more often than I would like; likewise “cancer” and “Alzheimer’s.” A gay friend who died in his 80s had just married for the first time when was hospitalized for something minor and got a fatal infection. This is how life goes, in the end. But you’ve spent enough time on the op-ed page. Turn to the obituaries.