“Anything good in the obituaries today, Mrs. Graves?” I trained my students to ask when they saw me entering my English class with the newspaper. They knew I rummaged through it daily for “exposition” worthy of a closer look. As aspiring writers, they loved the misplaced modifiers and convoluted logic in headlines such as “Teacher Strikes Idle Kids,” or “Tornado Rips through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead.”

But the obituaries were also not to be overlooked for engaging discourse to share.   Obituaries, in reality, are meant to establish one final relationship among the reader, the writer, and those written about. Oscar Wilde’s last words may have been, “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do,” but the common man’s prose often beats Edgar Allan Poe’s “’Nevermore.”

Mitch Albom’s book, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” was the initial catalyst for my daily search. Albom’s story is about an amusement park maintenance man who meets five different people in heaven whose lives crossed his at, vitally, important junctures. Instead of meeting my five at the Pearly Gates (if I make it), I would rather meet some of the people I’ve read about in the obits.

People list their ages and death dates, their relatives and friends, their accomplishments, and their military service, as well as church affiliation and even team loyalties. But who wouldn’t want to meet a man whose obituary opens with the words, “age 141 (just kidding)”? A sense of humor comes in handy and may be no different from the words on an ancient tombstone: “Life is a jest and all things show it; I thought it once, but now I know it.”

 I’m charmed by those whose deaths are described as “meeting one’s maker,” “going to Abraham’s bosom,” “joining the angels,” or “passing over Jordan.” These are more poetic than “checking out,” “taking the last count,” or “buying the farm” as my mother used to say. But being “promoted to heaven in full dress uniform with medals glowing” as a lead line for a World War II vet easily caught my attention. Included were the names of forty some people who were to meet him “over there, over there” as well as a listing of those who had not yet “surrendered during the final fight.” I taught extended metaphors so who says an obituary can’t have one carried through to the very end?

Meeting the man whose experience during war changed him profoundly would be an added plus. He emerged from the fighting “a reluctant patriot” as well as a passionate liberal.” He described his marriage as full of energy, social activism, and good martinis — a strange combination. Some people are political to the end and may be rewarded to find that heaven is not divided between blue clouds and red clouds. If it is, then finally both parties will be happy for all eternity in their own piece of heaven. 

 I also want to question the person who was known for her artistic skills, especially her decorated eggs, banners, and complex gift wrapping. Simple? Complex? Just buy the gift bags, I would argue.

One man described the first meeting of his wife as an “immediate infusion, tornadic interspersion, a bombastic intertwining.” Does it mean the same thing as the lady who wrote of first meeting her husband at a party: “I caught his eye?” Of course, the Depression-era man whose motto was “Waste not, want not” and who, as a struggling college student, made his bride-to-be an engagement ring from “a veal bone inlaid with dental silver” and “sold his blood to finance their honeymoon” is somebody we all should learn from. 

The ancient Greeks did not write obituaries but did ask: Did he have passion? Maybe the lady remembered for “running the farm tractor, weaning orphan lambs with her special milk bottle, traveling to a city park just to watch the ducks frolic and the squirrels romp, getting out of the house late in life to have a cheeseburger, and sitting on her deck enjoying forbidden strawberry milkshakes” may just have some Greek in her. Please God, could she be one of my five?

Bev Graves occasionally writes for Outlook by the Bay.

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