Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Pleasure of Reading Obituaries

A few posts back, I mentioned that when I read the New York Times I like to turn to the business section right after reading the main news section. It hit me the other day that part of the reason for this is that the obituaries tend to be tucked into the back of the business news, and that perusing the obituaries constitutes some of the most satisfying and enlightening newspaper reading that I do.

Take Tuesday's obits. There is one about Peg Mullen, the woman who was outraged when she was informed by the military that her son had been killed in Vietnam by accident by his own side's artillery, often referred to as "friendly fire," a phrase which also became the title of a best-selling book and award winning TV movie. Mullen, who relentlessly labored to learn the full story behind her son's death, was never convinced by the military's version of what happened, despite the fact that C.D.B. Bryan, the author of "Friendly Fire," accumulated considerable evidence supporting the military's claims. In the process, Mullen became a fierce anti-war activist. She lived to be 92 and strongly protested US involvement in both the Persian Gulf War and the current occupation of Iraq. She also wrote her own book called "Unfriendly Fire: A Mother's Memoir."

Obituaries like this one remind me of the arc of remarkable lives of ordinary people, of how people respond to adversity, of how vigilantly people sometimes work to uncover the truth, and how a traumatic event can transform one's life. I must admit that I am both heartened and horrified to read about a life like this. Encountering a clear and concise account of such a life changes how you think about your own short time on earth.

Or from the same day's paper, consider the life of Ben Feder, who died at the age of 86, and helped establish the Upper Hudson River Valley as a respected region for winemaking. He hit it big in the mid-1970s with a seyval blanc grape which resulted in a "deliciously fruity, off-dry white wine" that attracted favorable attention for the first time in 1977. According to the obituary, this didn't happen by accident. It occurred as a consequence of careful study and repeated experimentation. In time, his wines became so popular and so well thought of that the official chef of the Mayor of New York City chose them as his house wine.

Very different from the life of Peg Mullen to be sure, but just a tiny reminder of the many ways there are to live a full life. And just about any time you review the New York Times' obituaries you are reminded again of the striking fact that human lives can go in a million different directions, and in so many cases make a contribution worth noting and honoring.

1 comment:

  1. I like Charlie Pierce's take on obits. Whenever it's not you, you get a point. When it's not your birth year is the same of earlier, you get two points. The idea of the game is to keep scoring.
    I read them everyday, too, though not the Times, but my local paper. From time to time I recognize a name, usually one I haven't heard in a long time, occasionally one of my former patients. Those entries are always pause for reflection.