The Death of the Obituary

Ding, dong, the obituary is dead. Well not actually, but it has died in its popularity, frequency of readers, and overall quality of writing. There was once a time when the obituary section of the newspaper had many readers. And those readers would sympathize with the family going through the loss, remember the achievements of the person who passed and regret not knowing them. But what’s the point of having fans after death? And even more so, why do we care about people only once they are dead?

A week ago, I was notified that a family friend’s mother had passed away and was sent the obituary written in her honor. I had never read an obituary, and didn’t know what to expect. After reading hers, I became curious about obituaries as a form of genre and wondered which publications also published obituaries. I discovered that the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other big name publications could be commissioned to write them. While I was reading some obituaries by The New York Times, two things made me uncomfortable. First, I was unsatisfied with the lack of information on the personality and character of the deceased — all that was covered was their jobs and achievements. Second, the there was a lack of diversity in who the obituaries were written about, and more particularly, they seemed to only be written about the lives of old white men.

One obituary I read was romanticizing the life of Jimmy Johnson, the “studio staple of southern soul.” I found that Jimmy’s success and talent as a backup instrumental musician was fueled and exaggerated with name drops of famous artists like Aretha Franklin and the Funk Brothers of Motown Records. The obituary did a wonderful job with describing Johnson’s journey to start his own inclusive recording studio in Alabama, along with how his studio produced soul music that other southern studios refused to publish.

But once I finished the reading, I felt discomfort and dissatisfaction. The obituary honored and remember Johnson well, but I didn’t know anything about Johnson as a human being. I knew him in black and white. At that point, Johnson’s obituary was like a Wikipedia page — although some Wikipedia pages are actually quite informative. I had read Johnson’s resume, a listing of his achievements and family, but I wanted to know if Johnson was loved by his colleagues for his puns or if he was good with his grandchildren. The lack of the rich, emotional information that really makes us understand a person wasn’t included in any of the obituaries I read. And why was that? After all, it’s always those movies that make us cry and remind us of our humanity that we believe are the best. Maybe it’s because of our social protocol to talk sensitively about the deceased, in caution that we will either regret not knowing them better. Or perhaps it’s out of our fear of death. I, for one, am terrified of dying. So by further diving into the life and character of a dead person, who will never again be able to share his or her presence with the world, only forces me to acknowledge the consequences of death.

Now to provide a quick lesson on obituary basics, there seems to be a structural template universally used by all the publications. The template is roughly like this:

  1. Name, place of birth, age, and place of death
  2. Cause of Death
  3. Family lineage
  4. Life achievements (college, job, job #2, retirement)
  5. (Optional) Funeral information

Understandably so, this template for obituaries honors the person who died in a way that makes it appear as though they had lived a full and successful life. Also, the whoever writes the obituary has to please the family of the deceased — because they are the ones who paid for it.

The second reason obituaries make me uncomfortable is the blatant absence of obituaries for young, multi-ethnic or female people. Furthermore, I had expected to see at least one obituary about a victim of Hurricane Dorian, but there were none, at least in national publications. This lack of representation, even in death, is alarming. While I understand obituaries cost money — to have one written in the NY Times is $50 per line — and due to socioeconomic status, an obituary may not be affordable or important, you’d think publications would write some pro bono obituaries to honor the victims of natural disasters and gun violence.

In a change of events, my stance about obituaries has been turned around. In the process of writing this blog post, I searched around and read obituaries from local and national publications. In doing so, I found some obituaries that were written quite well. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, really seems to honor the person who had passed, focusing on the impact he or she had on others in life and in death. The obituary for Valerie Harper, for instance, focused on Harper’s “all too human” attitude and friendliness. I enjoyed reading that portion of the obituary because it allowed me to connect to Harper and respect her. In addition, the obituary focused — more than once — on Harper’s 10 year battle with cancer. As somber as it is, acknowledging Harper’s journey with a terminal cancer reminded me of the strength and perseverance displayed when battling for life. The presence of the themes of hope and strength in an obituary was a complete turn around from the elevator pitch obituaries I first read.

In conclusion, if all obituaries cast the same respect and realness as the ones in the Los Angeles Times, the genre could move people to tears. They may not be your regular Nicholas Sparks novel, but these honest biographies of real people hit a different place in your heart. And once these obituaries become more inclusive in representing a diverse array of the deceased, they may become eligible for a Pulitzer Prize.

Discomfort Econ Feel

I decided to step out of my comfort zone by reading a news article about the US Federal Reserve lowered the target range for its benchmark interest rate to a range of 1.75% to 2%. I’ve said before how the economy as a general concept is certainly something I wish I was more knowledgeable about, yet I always find an excuse to not branch out and actively try to learn more. I took this assignment of stepping out of my reading comfort zone as an opportunity to hit two birds with one stone—I would learn about some aspect of how the economy works and the state of the current US economy, while reading an article that is most definitely not pleasure reading for me.

Overall, it went better than I feared upon reading the introduction. I did have to stop and google several terms along the way, not wanting to skim over the article as I have on so many occasions, but actually make a real attempt to understand what the author was saying. Concepts such as “prime rate”, a “strong US dollar”, “ETF” are things I’ve heard of but wouldn’t normally bother to stop reading, look them up, and read the basic wikipedia page on before continuing reading. But as I went through, and let me assure you I had to re-read several sentences to have any understanding of their meaning, I began to make more and more sense of how lower interest rates can (in theory) spur the economy, allowing and encouraging more people to take out loans for various purposes. This increased incentive to take out loans results in more purchases that come with the large loans, which leads to more money being passed around, and with that comes a better economy (although many experts dispute that this will be the actual result, I didn’t quite become an expert on this part yet). The important thing is, after taking significant time to read the article, I had a better understanding of not just the basic news content, but also to some extent the effect it has (or might have) on the real world.

Stepping out of my comfort zone and reading this wasn’t exactly fun, and I definitely wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t a required assignment. But at the same time, I am grateful for it precisely because otherwise I wouldn’t have allowed myself to spend the time googling economic terms, or to read the article a few times to try and actually comprehend it. I won’t pretend that I now have a complete understanding of the current American economy, or even what lowering interest rates means past the simple definition, or the implications it will have going forward. But they say the journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step, and now I can say I have done just that. Sorry for the pun in the title.

Why did I do this

Three things I despise the most are economic jargon, people telling me what to think, and men who talk too much. I pride myself in knowing what I know about what I want to know, and frankly, I’ve been okay with not knowing what I don’t know. I never feel the need or intense desire to learn about outdated economic ideals or what some old white dude has to say about his shiny new ideology. It has nothing to do with me, and maybe I’m better off not knowing.

So, of course, The Communist Manifesto (or at least the preamble) was the perfect choice for this assignment.

I went in with a thin veil of disgust as, having read excerpts for history classes in the past, I knew that this would be an experience full of confusion, backtracking, and pronouncing “bourgeoisie” at least five different ways in my head. I couldn’t stand the high-and-mighty voice of Karl Marx or the winding, twisting way he crafted his sentences to get one single point across. But most importantly, I couldn’t stand his definite belief that he was right.

Why did I feel this way? I normally value a strong, able writer. I respect their assertive nature and their confidence. But this time, I was nothing but irked. I think it’s because I’ve been conditioned to view this piece of writing with fear, with the common belief that any high school or college student who tries to read it won’t understand a word. Maybe I was mad at Karl Marx for allowing teachers and students to immediately write themselves off as incompetent or lacking in some way.

Of course, this belief isn’t without reason. At the end of the day, The Communist Manifesto was not written for me, my peers, or my teachers. It was not written for anyone in this time. It was written as a plea for the world to accept a new ideology, one which we now look down upon. So of course I have zero feelings of trust and security when thinking about this piece.

However, eventually the exact things that annoyed me, particularly the writer’s assertiveness and demanding tone, drew me in. This was probably his intention; to brainwash the reader into trusting his every word and bringing them over to his side. Although I understood little of the economic talk, the discussions of society and America were intriguing under this new perspective. This just made me even angrier. Why? Because I have no patience for men who talk too much, especially when it’s about the economy.

Let’s Climb These Mountains

Discomfort. Out of your comfort zone. Not things I particularly wanted to participate in when all I wanted to do was curl up in my bed, drink some tea, and read my book that was very much targeted towards me (yay Asian American books!). Despite my sluggish movements and drooping eyes-all a result from consuming nothing but carbs today- I decided to venture onto the internet to find something I was not particularly excited to read. After literally inputting “non-fiction articles” into my search bar, I found an article on physics which reminded me that I have never taken a physics class nor do I need to in order to graduate. While I am very content on never having set my eyes on anything physics related, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see what all the buzz was about.

The moment I dived into the very appealing “The Quantum Mechanical Three-Body Problem”, my eyes immediately glazed over as I was hit by concepts I had absolutely no clue about. This entire excerpt (which is apart of a book) was based on the three-body problem, but I didn’t even know what that was. The more I read, the more I became discouraged, with my attitude ultimately dissolving into “WHO CARES?” as my frustration mounted. There were also equations and signs in there that weren’t English, so I wasn’t able to google or research their meaning unlike the rest of the article. Knowing that even in my best efforts at the time I wouldn’t be able to understand it was discouraging to say the least. I would have to learn concept after concept if I wanted full understanding, leaving me without full understanding of the article, even after all my googling. It felt like there was a giant wall in front of me, and I could choose to try to scale it or look away.

I don’t know enough about physics to dislike it, and I’m sure it is an interesting subject, but I’ve never felt a sense of urgency to learn about it. These physics concepts are always going to be here, so when I have more time I could probably learn it if I want. I’ve also lived quite fine without understanding physics, with being ignorant having no glaring, negative impacts on my life. If anything, trying to read this excerpt that is clearly meant for someone who has a physics background lead me to overestimate the difficulty of this article and underestimate my ability to understand it. But even if I did believe I have the ability to believe it fully, I fall back into my lack of urgency. Especially when the homework and responsibilities I face now are so much more tangible, leading me to complete these tasks first, having the ability to comprehend something doesn’t seem to matter as much when I don’t have time I want to sacrifice to learn it.

While for some walls like physics, not knowing it now doesn’t seem imperative, so looking away may be okay. But for other subjects like taxes, stocks, and politics that are very much looming in front of me, my complacency in climbing them and decision to avoid them is concerning. I hope that despite the apathy and tiredness from the college life that feels like weighs on my legs, I would begin hoist myself up, one foot at a time (aka defy that gravity… see that physics connection?).They aren’t going to move on their own.

I am confusion

Finishing up my RITZ crackers (i.e. the world’s best brain food), I skimmed through the first few lines of the reading, hoping to grasp the general idea fairly quickly. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), that did nothing for me, so I had to reread it. And reread it again. After one more attempt, I realized I had spent a good five minutes on just the first section. Mentions of Augustinian values, Transcendentalism, and something called Swedenborgianism forced genuine laughter out of me. The hilarious notion that I was trying to understand this overwhelmed me to say the least. It became abundantly clear that this was not written for me, which wouldn’t usually bother me if I could just stop reading. Instead, I took a quick break (the first of many) to go on my phone and check twitter – something that seemed more essential to me than understanding an excerpt of Haller’s “The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America.” 

When assigned the task of finding a reading outside of my comfort level, I didn’t expect to end up learning about the physician’s role and impact in Victorian America. A classic “you might be wondering how I got here” situation. Long story short, I remembered one of my past professors talking about it, and they posted an excerpt online for us to look over someday. I guess today was that day! After putting my beloved phone down, I decided to abandon my first attempt to reread until it made sense because I had a feeling that wouldn’t be so easy with this piece. Rather, I opted to read the excerpt in its entirety, highlighting the takeaway points and comprehensive sections. In what can only be described as “struggle-reading,” a term I’ve created to explain the feeling of having to push through the reading and all the accompanying confusion of a piece, I found myself slowly grasping some of the author’s points. I won’t pretend that I totally got it, but the points made about women’s sexuality stuck with me. It makes sense that institutional structures and societal norms can suppress certain groups and their expressions. The physician’s dismissal of women’s sexuality and anatomy ultimately contributed to the patriarchy shaping Victorian America. This argument makes total sense, so why did I have such trouble getting through this reading? 

Besides the references to pre-victorian figures and the painfully confusing vocabulary, I think the topic is what ultimately led to my distraction. Although there were interesting points, the lack of urgency of the matter, or knowing that I didn’t need to learn this now or anytime soon (or possibly at all), left me feeling secure in not fully understanding the content. It would take a lot more than reading one book excerpt to understand this obscure topic, and I felt no obligation to grasp the concept in its entirety. This brings up the question I often ask myself: if there is no way that I could ever fully get this, why try to only scratch the surface? This concept of quitting the pursuit of knowledge because I doubt my own capability to ever be comfortable with the information is a sentiment I know well. 

The discomfort of reading a piece of writing that isn’t made for you and your current level of understanding can turn into frustration – sometimes humor, but mostly frustration. Continuing to read and try to learn, despite that discomfort, is what really challenged me. And that’s the catch! You have to read pieces like this to gain that knowledge you’re missing. I have no doubt that knowing history and the ways it has shaped the modern world is important. The thing about history, though, is that you’re never finished learning about it. You will never reach a point of knowing all the history there is to know. That sense of endless information, a daunting pit of crucial knowledge, has always been enough to drive me away from personally exploring it. Over the years, learning about history through a structured class setting has become standard for me, since the teacher seems to know what to talk about and provides many of the resources, leaving the students to merely memorize certain historical facts. It’s simple and narrow, and there are no questions asked. But that won’t work forever, and we have to move past our comfort zones for the sake of bettering ourselves. One day, we won’t be students anymore. We won’t have a professor leading the discussion or homework to help us understand certain content, but we still have to learn, grow, and explore. No matter where our learning takes us (which, granted, probably won’t involve researching the role of the physician in Victorian America), it is crucial we push ourselves forward anyways. When we feel that discomfort creeping in, let’s sit with it. That’s a pretty good start.