Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Editorial: Reading the Obituaries, Part Two

To recapitulate the quote Bill Cosby posed; "Like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I begin each day with coffee and obituaries."

To understand his point, I read the WaPo (Washington Post for those not in the know) obituaries to hopefully understand Mr. Cosby.

What were my findings?

I was:




What you say? How could one be amused in reading the obituaries?! In some ways, the obituary descriptions include insightful, nuance to people's lives and how they lived. For example, I read a female, naval officer was survived by her cat "Blue Angel, who will miss her bright smile, quick wit, sharp intellect and encouragement." While not all descriptions include intended quasi- humorous passages, but it demonstrates that death is not merely a solemn process.

The cat is named Blue Angel, most likely a reference to the Blue Angels, an elite military unit who fly jets in the Navy. Clearly an allusion to her military career. Including her cat in the obituary demonstrates that animals, namely her cat, were an important part of her life who would miss said qualities. Reading these few sentences warmed my hears allowing a respite from the onslaught of portraits.

Depressed: Opening up the page, the pictures, captions, and volume of text overwhelmed my comprehension. Not that I am ignorant of people passing away every day, but the newspaper attaches pictures to the names. An existential, surreal feeling emanates when you realize the people smiling have died. My eyes scanned over the two pages, struggling to categorize and digest the information of those surviving the deceased and the complications around their passing.

Provoked: Two things elicited this reaction. 1. Some obituaries tended to be longer, describing their life in article form. The obituary recounted their family life, political actions...etc, moving me and the general reader to action and to continue on their struggles. 2. That funeral homes include their logos on personal obituaries. This most likely results in people who couldn't pay the fee in the newspaper, and the funeral home offers to pay for the space but stipulate that their logo is included. While making marketing and economic sense, it somehow, for me at least, lessens the impact and emotional nature of death. What do you think?

Coffee: Drinking coffee when reading the obituaries didn't necessarily make me severe, but rather forced me to linger over the obituaries. I had to finish my coffee before I moved on to a different section extending my time over the recently passed. Reading the obituaries everyday, with or without coffee, I would think have an accumulative effect slowly making the reader grave, cynical, existential, and/or self-aware. In addition, having black coffee adds to the overall drab color...not quite sure if this means anything, but a thought.

My advice to readers, don't drink coffee and read obituaries everyday. It's amusing, depressing, and provoking, creating an odd mix of feelings thats unnerves our false sense of safety in our modern world.


  1. Interesting post. You might be interested in Roland Barthes' book on photography, Camera Lucida, if you've not read it already. Photography has a very odd quality in that it is the capturing of what is philosophically impossible: a "moment" (since conceptualising of time as "moments" leads to paradoxes such as Zeno's). It kind of eternalises an ephemera and becomes a "truth" (since we always consider that a photograph tells us the truth, unlike with other forms of art that show us an ideal). But truth as something still, static, unchanging, and therefore contradictory to the way we know the real world to be.

    I agree about the funeral home logos too. I think it probably has something to do with alienation. It is a commonplace to say that human beings or human relations are "priceless", which is a way of saying that they lie beyond the province of capitalist market relations (which reify everything they touch into quantities of cash). But such logo use shows that, really, nothing is 'priceless', or beyond the market mechanism. Of course, that's true of those who were able to pay the newspaper too, but it's not as obviously visible.


  2. Great points all around Matt, and well put. The photos capturing the moment, if I understand you correctly, seem to represent the perception of truth as people interpret the camera producing the image. This image cannot lie or distort reality because it being a device cannot think or act on its own.

    In the context of obituaries, the photos represent the person's whole life in one photo that the reader assumes speaks for the actions of the persons total existence. Which is odd because when we look at our photos we critique them as not representative of our lives or, even simply, how we look or act.