By Mark Weber
One of my tasks at Today’s Catholic aligns me with gravediggers, morticians, doctors, nurses, lawyers and others who are the last to sign off on a person who dies. Maybe you could call me a ghostwriter: not that I write under another’s name, no – it’s because I edit obituaries.
In my case there is more reading than writing to the job, since our “obits” go through a process similar to cremation: filtered to essentials, just listing the names of deceased Catholics with their city, age and parish. To get this minimal information I look over all the obituaries in the Fort Wayne and South Bend papers, and check other sources including the Internet. This is not a chore because obits, like tombstones, have writing between the lines.
Reading obituaries, even those of strangers, produces a reaction. Once again, it is what’s between the lines that determines my response. Take the case of Anthony, a respected, small-town businessman and a lifelong member of his parish, who died at 93; his wife Anna, 92, followed him in death one month later. My feeling about this couple was that through their large family they found joy in a life together that surpassed any other experience. But as stated in Ecclesiastes 3:2, there is “a time to be born, and a time to die…”
Acceptance of and understanding death gets a little murky when reading about the death of a child, which is an emotional grenade that rips apart parents, grandparents, siblings and classmates. The grief is spread to wherever the word is read.
The obit of Judy, who died at 56, reports that she and her husband Nick, were often seen riding their tandem bike through the neighborhood. What is revealed between the lines is that any couple who enjoys riding a tandem bike on a regular basis shares a sense of humor and is blessed with a harmonious companionship. It also means that Nick is going to experience prolonged grief.
The obit that never fails to shock me, and cause heavy sadness, concludes with a phrase such as “respecting Wilma’s wishes, there will be no calling or service.” There is nothing between the lines to explain the stark and empty feeling delivered by these ominous words. One can only wonder what it was in Wilma’s life that prompted such a “wish.”
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