As we creep closer to sliding into our graves, we cannot help but look back over the arc of our lives and be tempted to wonder what is and what might have been. There’s no regret in the ongoing evaluation of who we are and what we intended to become.
I always found it odd, and a little off-putting, growing up as a child in the Midwest, and having the older folks around me scan the obituaries page in the daily newspaper.
Looking for deaths — sometimes with both hope and regret — was maudlin and a little frightening to me, but the obit page was the final period on the end of a single image forged in sweat and hope against an impending darkness. You were okay to be forgotten as long as the descriptive bits of you found final ink on a page.
Now that I live in the New York City area, and moved by both time and tide, I cannot help but be driven by my Midwestern DNA to scan the obituaries page of the New York Times. It’s a wildly different experience reading the East Coast death roll call because these were the famous, and the infamous, and we are expected to remember them longer than the same sort of dead friends reported from the farmlands and valleys of the regular clarion — but we won’t.
As you read the New York Times obits page, you are struck by a great sense of overwhelming nothingness. If your life doesn’t land in those pages, you are but one of the millions of the unnamed unwashed; and even if you make the page, you’re now destined to be forgotten anew.
Having an entire life redacted for publication makes the persona feel small and comparably insignificant. The lesson is life is short, we must do many things all the time, and wait for nothing and no one, and act while reacting. Then we go.
Death comes for us all slowly and purposefully and that’s why we ache against the unexpected and the unwanted.
Once the life is over, the living of that moment no longer has any real meaning. Few of us matter. Even fewer still will have made any sort of significant, everlasting, difference in a massive, spinning, world.
Did we ever really exist beyond our common circles?
How quickly will what we learned and taught be forgotten?
I know wisdom and experience are overrated — because, in the end, none of it confers with us and none of it is left behind to convey its own unabated truth.
There is such sadness in reading the obituaries of the influential and famous because you’re left with the everlasting impression that absolutely nothing lasts and nothing really matters in the end, because death is coming for us all and the human need to leave behind a mark, and to make a difference, is not ultimately possible because we are all too easily replaced and people are more inclined to reinvent than to remember.
Death is too convenient. The living prefer to be unburdened by the past; and once you’re dead, everything you meant and craved and loved and died for is hushed by time and your replacements. Your body was always your worst enemy.
There are a few people in antiquity who matter to more than a few of us. Aristotle. Plato. Abraham Lincoln.
What about the rest of the dead of us who tried to contribute and make a difference but never really accomplished anything in the common mind except to reserve a little space for breathing until that act was no longer sustainable?
Kind and quiet living isn’t much of a moral assuaging when you are surrounded by non-devout leeches.
Legacies do not endure — even though many believe in the preservation of the effort, and in the reverence of the family. All relationships are temporal and ever-changing — and that makes them expendable and precisely made for the grave.
How would your obituary read today if you died right now? Would the words describe the person or the place or the possessions? Would the ordinary reader care for more than a moment that you died and were no longer alive in mind?