A sad but true trend with the advent of the holiday season is that obituary pages of most newspapers will bulge — not just with tragedy — but with treasured lives that ended on a good note.
During my time in the newsroom, I edited obituaries with reverence and awe and witnessed their predictable spike in number at this time of year. It’s a gift to many when families offer time and expense to memorialize loved ones with due justice in print.
Once, I wrote a series of feature articles on hospice patients. In two cases, their remarkable stories appeared on the front page one day and their obituary a few days later. One man’s family said they believed he hung on long enough to read his story before he rested in peace.
As Mormons, we generally agree that death is well-timed beyond our understanding. We also believe in the importance of documenting life through personal histories, journals and genealogy. Every time I mourned the loss of a beloved grandparent, solace came with the opportunity to write the obituary, an assignment from my extended family that I’ll always treasure.
During recent Sunday School study, I was reminded of the importance of recording the history of people’s experiences by the words of Jesus Christ himself.
After his resurrection and appearances in both Jerusalem and ancient America; after he healed and blessed and taught, he took time to go over historical records with Nephi, his third disciple by that name.
Jesus reminded Nephi that Samuel’s prophecies were not complete and more than once, he admonished American disciples to write what they had learned. He obviously gave the same assignment in Jerusalem that resulted in the four gospels of the New Testament as well as the other books of scripture.
We look forward to the day when we’re able to read other accounts of Christ’s ministry to other lost tribes who were, no doubt, also assigned the task of writing about spiritual and cultural growth.
So today, we should not consider ourselves an exception to the task of record keeping for ourselves and for those who have passed on.
One of the books on my bedside table, next to my scriptures and “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns,” is Marilyn Johnson’s “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries.”
Her study of the art of writing about those who have passed on is fascinating to me, not because of a presumably morbid fixation on death (hers or mine), but how unique lives are memorialized in so few words.
Her hook in the opening chapter is a proposition that people leave this earth in occupational clusters. Our second and third presidents of the United States both died on July 4, exactly 50 years after they signed the Declaration of Independence. She also cited the simultaneous passing of scientists, inventors, philanthropists and actors who were connected somehow.
For example, the men who voiced Tigger and Piglet in Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” died within a day of each other. Thank goodness, Utah’s Frank Sansom, who voiced Rabbit, stayed seven more years to end a wonderful life last month. I appreciated reading several of his obituaries.
Since introducing myself to Johnson’s book and on days when I happen to read more than one obituary, I’ve been casually looking for connected clusters. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I said, “Aha!” to my computer screen.
Just last week, three women older than 80 who passed on the same day had been married to men named Elmer. It’s a little thing that could be nothing more than coincidence. But for some reason, the “Elmer connection” was a spiritual touch on my shoulder that God does have a hand in leading us out of this life, even if the timing is hard on those left behind. Of course, more conclusive evidence of this exists in holy writ and from our living prophets.
So this Thanksgiving weekend, I am grateful for the written word on ink-smudged newspapers, on my smartphone screen, in books, on stone walls, and translated from papyrus, rice paper, stone tablets and gold plates that continually remind me that every day of life is precious and every life on this earth should be recorded with reverence.