My eyes scan the obituary columns these days. My length of years in Houston and my community involvement lead me, at times, to find the name of a person with whom I had some contact. The typical obituary gives the person's name and age, war service, employment, organizations joined and awards received, survivors, place of the funeral service and suggested recipient for memorials. What the printed words do not convey is the quality of a person's relationships, the incisiveness of mind, the helping touch, the subtle humor and the warm spirit.
Pausing at an obituary leaves me sad: sad for the loss of that person's life but also sad for the reduction of a person's life to dates, survivors and accomplishments. So much vitality, so few words.
In Jean-Paul Sartre's1944 play No Exit, Inez and her two companions are in hell-not a hell of fire but a well-furnished room without windows and a door that is forever locked. (The play contains the famous line, "Hell is -- other people!"). In response to one character's protest, "I died too soon, I wasn't allowed time to -- to do my deeds," Inez caustically replies:
One always dies too soon -- or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are your life and nothing else.
True, but not absolutely true. The effect of one's life continues to work in others' lives and in community institutions. Inez's "line drawn neatly under it" is the obituary view of life. As such, it is devoid of so much that makes us human.
We humans are also made of dreams -- the yearnings and hopes that lift our eyes and pull us into the future. There are dreams deferred and dreams lost as well as dreams realized. Then there is the anguish surrounding roads considered but not traveled. There are temptations resisted and destructive habits overcome as well as obvious and visible defects of character. So much of who we are is not communicated in the line-drawn-neatly-under-it obituary.
Is it possible for words to convey the qualities and the vibrancy of any human life? Perhaps a poet might, if the poet intimately knew the person, but, few of us reveal our deep yearnings to others. Anyway, poets are few and far between and the cost of newspaper space makes survivors count each word.
Now, when reading an obituary, I pause and use my imagination to fill in some of the spaces between the words. I also have come to a more conscious awareness of and a deeper appreciation for the words often spoken at a funeral service: "... and their works do follow them."
© Robert H. Tucker, 1999.
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