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Monday, March 21, 2011

Oh, Bits.

For a while, when I was younger, I would read the obituary page of The Philadelphia Inquirer. When I remarked to a camp counselor that I did this, he asked me why. "To make sure I'm not in there," I quipped.

Precocious, indeed.

Really, the reason I read the obituaries was to see if anybody I knew was in there. I'm not quite sure who exactly I thought I might know, as a fourth grader in suburban southeast Pennsylvania, who might be recently deceased and, therefore, would be in the obituaries. But, for a good few years, I read the obituaries-- just to make sure. I read them pretty regularly. Like other developmentally dubious, potentially unhealthy habits in which I engaged as a child, my parents did little to curb this particular... interest.

"Why don't you read the comics?" my mother helpfully suggested one morning as I sat in my father's chair at the dining room table, hunched over the obits page. I thought about that idea for a moment or two, and it seemed reasonable.

"Okay," I responded. And I began to read the comics, after finishing up reading the obituaries. My favorite comics as a child were "Bloom County" and "Doonesbury."

There is no denying that death is fascinating, especially to a child, who is just beginning to fit death into his whole schema of how the world operates. The utter finality of it, the universality of it, the why and wherefore-- it was pretty arresting for little bowl-cut ol' me. I enjoyed very much reading all the different names and professions people had, how long they lived, where they were being buried. Goldsteins was a very popular funeral home in my neck of the woods, and, as the years went on, several members of my mother's family passed through that way. Those who worshipped in a different way frequently were tended to by the Donahue folks. They had multiple locations. Death is a big business.

The one thing that really irked the piss out of me as a kid reading obituaries was the distinct lack of gory details-- especially when the decedent was a young buck. Like-- I really wanted to know what happened and I thought, if they were going to bother putting this shit in the newspaper, which is supposed to provide information, that I had kind of a right to know how these people died. I wasn't particularly interested in, "passed suddenly." Well, if you're not wasting away in some Stryker bed in your living room with bedsores all over your ass or hooked up to a ventilator in some ICU, isn't it pretty much always "sudden"? Come on, bitches-- I wanted the details.

What? Was she shot? Stabbed? Hammered or what? Did he eat poorly washed baby lettuce with E-coli in it? Was it an aneurysm or an embolism or a tension pneumothorax or a cerebrovascular hemorrhage? Did some crazy fuck put a pillow over this creep's face because he owed him $30 and a Sega Genesis game? I realized, of course, that it was just a tiny obituary and not a coroner's report, but I was reasonably sure that maybe seven or eight words about the cause of death wouldn't kill anybody.

See what I did there?

I routinely scanned the obituary pages to see if people were around the same age my parents were back then. If I read the entire day's worth of death notices, and there were no people who had died at roughly the age my parents were at this time, I could go to school relatively comforted that one or both of them weren't going to drop dead while I was not learning math. This was the kind of reassurance I craved, amongst lots of other kinds. If I read the obituaries and there were a couple of people who kicked it in their late thirties to early forties, it would be a challenging day at school. I wouldn't be able to focus. It's not that I'd be thinking about my parents dying all day, but, at inopportune moments, my mind would admittedly drift back to that unfortunate subject. Well, I'd reason, if it could happen to Stella V. D'Orisio (née Kaplan), then it could just as easily happen to my mommy. I'd like to entirely blame my mediocre grades on this preoccupation of mine, but I don't think that would be entirely fair. I also watched a lot of Monty Python.

Of course, as a child, I never found anybody I knew in the newspaper's obituary section. It was only after I actually started knowing people who had died that I stopped reading the obituaries. Maybe it became too real at that point. My great-uncle. My neighbor. My allergist. The girl I knew from school who died of a heart attack while getting her wisdom teeth out.


And it was perhaps then that I realized why, when someone so young passes, the family doesn't particularly feel compelled to reveal the reason behind the premature exit from the stage of life. Because it's just too painful. And, really, in the end-- what does it matter? When you're dead, you're dead. And to you and your loved ones, it's a calamity of unequaled proportions. And to some kid with a funny haircut sitting in a turquoise sweatsuit with his legs folded underneath him in his father's chair poring over the newspaper-- it's merely a curious obsession.

To put it mildly.


  1. An excellent read -- Thanks for the link.

  2. You've just given a perfect recount of what I used to do for a period of time post 911 - idle days when I was 10 and didn't care about worldly news; just obituaries to see if anyone I knew appeared on them. I would also count the years they have lived and wonder what kind of lives they had led - and I'd smile at old dead people's entries where a long list of children and grandchildren was given, because it seemed like they must have lived such fulfilling life.

    And whenever I see people my age in the obituaries, I'd go to school feeling disturbed and slightly depressed for the next couple of days.

    Amazing read :)


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