On Obits

A friend sent an obit that appeared in the Door County Advocate for one Lilly Velk. I did not know Ms. Lilly; still my friend thought I’d like the obit. It read, “Daughter of Swedish immigrants, her high school yearbook entry acclaimed her achievement as the school’s first Spanish Major with a Swedish accent.” The obit ended with the note…a memorial service to be held when her woods bloom again.

It is a marker of our age when we start to read obits, probably coincident to that point in life when the obit page has more resonance than it once did, like as not because we know these people. We all know how it is, when you read the obit and the first thing we notice after the name is how old they were. There is to this a personal and silent calculation, whether they were young or old, whether they were about right to die. This is a judgment call, a generational thing; when you are 20 anybody over the age of 40 is “about right to die.” When you reach 40 that margin shifts. Age has its zones the same as earthquakes. Nothing gradual as the sudden realization the ground underneath has shifted and suddenly you are in another zone, “about right to die.”

I do not know at what age a person begins to think of their own obituary. We were in the funeral home the same evening our mother died, sitting in a circle of folding chairs composing her obituary. Perhaps it’s just the essence of the English major as resides on my soul but this coincidental, haphazard informality struck me as woeful and inadequate, the obit done and concluded with less earnestness than a third grade book report. When this is the last good thing said of a person that really ought take the peace of a dark night to compose. Something composed in a comfortable chair, next to a fire, with music attending, to think petting a dog would help.

Like I said, maybe it’s just my English major bias coming into play, but it does seem that of all the things we do in life there are these few buoyant moments where the words really do count. Never mind the funeral mass is solemn, dressed in black, the music ancient and tear-tending, most of that is rubber stamped, mass-produced, done in the name of the franchise and far too often doesn’t celebrate the guy, the babe, the mom, the dad, the ribald uncle.

As that English major I wrote our children’s baptisms, the occasion of their baptism at the creek at the far end of the farm field. Lyndon was the local cloth at the time and I convinced him as a fellow seminarian that the better rule for baptism was outdoors with living water as defined by brook trout. Not water out of a faucet, wearing a suit and tie and under a roof. Not the same god, I said. I suggested there was a Biblical precedent. As you might guess Lyndon was my friend, we happened to be each other’s mentors. As a heretic I could tell my Lyndon baptizing a child is an act of whole life and it really isn’t about Jesus. He was my friend, he loved me enough to buy this. He read my poem. So it was my children were baptized in the waters of their fathers and mothers, their crops, the ice age, the granite rocks, the miscellaneous Ho Chunk and Menominee and whitetail deer and horned owls and trout, brook trout.

I believe in something similar for obits. In a way an obit is like baptism, like a marriage vow, the one clear chance to declare the oneness of the person. Not just another name, rather another story, there is a difference between a rubber stamp mimeograph and catching hold of the person.

I cited at the outset that obit a friend sent because as an obit it functioned neatly and gracefully and gained Ms. Lilly’s life in a few elegant sentences. I professed that I do believe in cemeteries and headstones because the tombstone is a raw and awkward challenge of the English major. The space is so limited, besides they charge by the letter. A certain literary ecology happens when they charge by the letter.

What attracted me to Ms. Lilly was that line, “a memorial service to be held when her woods bloom again.” What a neat summation that is, a detailed description of Ms. Lilly Velk’s life and values.

I have come to think that perhaps the Lincoln Center should have a class in epitaphs and obits. Yet methinks the obit and the epitaph is for some bystander to write, not the victim. That said, as a certifiable English major I do not trust people who were lazy about their book reports to do justice or poetry at this defining moment. In the end there may be no other choice than to write it yourself, if a touch vainglorious but then again you paid for it, “that memorial in May when the trilliums bloom.” Ms. Lilly, R.I.P.