The image seemed to leap off the page, radiant, the black-and-white thumbnail of a young woman with the smile of a perfect prairie sunrise. The photo spoke of her youth, of promise and innocence, complexion pure and luminous, perfect white teeth, blonde hair falling about her high cheeks in assured, untidy strains, her eyes glistening, hopeful, a face that spoke of joy and hope and excitement, of all the fortune and fealty that would be hers.
The image came with her obituary. She had been 31 years old, a nurse, single, with parents still living and siblings and other family with lives in other cities, other states. That was it. We are not told how or why this young woman died.
When someone is born he or she is given a place on this earth and in a family, one of great or limited affection, and they have people they adore and love and whom they worship. They have a place in the lives of others, and of people to whom they may give immeasurable fidelity and devotion. We have come to expect that they will have a chance to acquire certain experiences, to learn about good and evil, to be vigilant of the best things in our humanity, that humans are entitled to certain rights, to a basic dignity and respect. In the beginning there are the usual expectations, about school and learning in and out of the classroom, the codes layered among work and play, what money can and cannot buy, the importance of friends and trust and loyalty.
Among those experiences, later, is the sorry chance to talk about how a person’s life changes, about the real possibilities of love and loss, sorrow and pain, the inevitability of aging and death.
Not for this woman. She was gone far too soon and we don’t know why.
A year ago I wrote a brief essay about obituaries as a lost art – an effort, as it turns out, that seems misdirected. It should have been about obituaries as a lost cause, the double meaning left to hang in the word “cause.” Never mind the art.
This has been the case for more years than I can remember. I began to lose classmates to death at an early age, starting in grade school, and the newspapers always seemed to skirt around the event or, even the disease, that had brought their brief lives to an end. My first funeral was for a 5th-grade classmate, shot in the chest by his brother who apparently had been loosely holding a .22 rifle. The obituary worked around this tragic aspect but the news story did not, and in any event everyone in our small town had known what happened. The death of a child sears the soul and tears the heart of every parent and grandparent and most anyone old enough to be a parent – people who, as in other country towns, embrace a familial affection for almost every child who skips along their sidewalks, cuts across their corner, plays ball in their front yard or chases fireflies in the garden or turns a trike or bike in the driveway, and they know who’s who behind the masks when youngsters came knocking on Halloween. It’s wrenching enough that a child is dead; do the details matter?
Nearly every obituary these days – excepting those for the victims of some grisly crime or horrific public disaster – neglects to report a cause of death. There are times, even, that the death itself seems to escape any clear explanation. Instead, readers are told that a person went to dance with the Lord, or went to be home with Jesus, or flew away to a heavenly place. We assume that someone is dead only because it is implied, sometimes weakly, but the truth and reason of it – its tragedy, the loss, the void – is unclear.
This has happened because most newspapers now charge for obituaries, one of the more vulgar if not predatory developments in American journalism; the apparent trade-off is to allow the family to provide the deceased’s obituary without the intercession of good reporting. And this, apparently, releases any obligation for a newspaper to report the cause of death.
With men and women who now reach the robust age of, say, 80 or more, the inclination is to assume that the deceased was plainly too old to keep on living, or had tired of the effort. But again, can we be sure? My great grandfather, The Rev. C.W. Bailey, an active Methodist preacher, had baptized me when he was 101 and I was one, a century between us, and an event of brief mention in Life magazine. He remained active almost until he died, a few weeks short of his 104th birthday in 1950. The Rev. Martin Ringstrom, of Lindsborg, was working, writing, lucid enough to recite whole passages from Proverbs, or the book of Romans, or from Oliver Wendell Holmes, almost until pneumonia took him at age 100 in 2009; and a month ago a high school classmate lost her father, a farmer, at age 104. Had these men died ten or 15 years before they did, in their 80s or 90s, the assumption that old age had claimed them would have been terribly misguided; the men even then could have built a barn single-handedly.
None of this is about being nosy, prying into families to satisfy some gruesome curiosity. It is about confronting and relaying certain truths, the old adage that even if a bum isn’t much he is still a human being, and as a human being is entitled to certain rights, to a basic dignity and respect; and to have his death reported as accurately as any aspect of his life, especially if it is the first and last thing to be reported about him. Or her.
Regarding the young who die, the need to know and report is even greater. Among life’s greatest cruelties is the death of a child, of someone far too young to go; such a loss should not be dissolved without explanation.
In the American south, for one great example, there are dozens of overgrown and long-forgotten battlefields of the Civil War, eerie landscapes where tens of thousands of Union and Confederate American boys have died, on American soil; every inch of them, in such places as Champions Hill – in Mississippi, between Jackson and Vicksburg – for decades were allowed simply to grow over with vegetation as if none of that bloodshed (5,500 wounded or missing) and death (800) had never happened.
And nearly every day in the newspapers the deaths of so many people go unexplained, leaving another small bit of history to be grown over, forgotten.
Every life, from the first startled moments of infancy to the final breath of a long existence, has value, and every life has at least one event worth recording, one story for the telling, if only at his or her death. No one is ever intended simply to disappear without reason, or cause.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL