Why I Read The Obituaries

We’re all interested in each other.  It explains the explosive success of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and tweeting. I’m sure there are many others that I, at my advanced age, just haven’t heard about yet, but that my grandchildren are tuning in to.  What we say and do matters to others, those we’re close to and those we don’t even know.  Therefore, the friend of a friend becomes my Facebook friend, and then we’re friends………well, that brings me back to obituaries.  I won’t say forever since one thing I’ve learned from obituaries, as well as from life itself, is that nothing alive lasts forever.  So, then, we’re friends until we can no longer be friends.

I usually weed out and read the Jewish obituaries.  And I suspect that many other members of the tribe have this same select secret little habit. They’re just not blogging about it!  Why else are our daily newspapers in America, and our Jewish newspapers in particular, spending so much time and space in printing them?  People do read them.

Some major newspapers, like the New York Times for example, even have obituaries written in advance.  That way they’re ready when a celebrity or big-wig dies unexpectedly.  They just fill in the dots….the cause and date of death and burial arrangements.  In these days of instant everything, even obituaries are instant.  And even faster on the internet than in the freshly delivered newspaper with its already old news.

In a few brief paragraphs there’s so much that an obituary reveals. .I ‘d be surprised if social scientists didn’t use them to glean information quickly as they analyze where our American Jewish world is heading.

So let’s parse some hypothetical tidbits to be gleaned from obituaries. And some questions that will remain unanswered as well.

Where was the deceased born and where did he die?  There you have a very efficient hyphenated biography.  Fill in the dots.  You know that a Jew born in the 1920’s Poland has a different story than your aunt born the same year in the Bronx.

What was her career?

Where should contributions in memory of the deceased be made? To a synagogue or an animal rights organization? To an Israel charity, left, right or center?

What are her children’s names?  And grandchildren?  This is a very revealing source of material.  If Chaim Goldberg leaves a married daughter named Ruth O’Hara, that may tell you very little.  Mr. O’Hara may have converted and actually added himself to am yisrael.  But if the O’Hara children are named Chris or O’Hara Junior, that tells you something else.

Where is he being buried?  In some cases of intermarriage the Jewish spouse will choose to be buried in a non Jewish cemetery so that he can be next to his wife.  This is, obviously, a net loss to the Jewish people of their progeny who will, always, be categorized as of Jewish descent.

Is the family sitting shiva?  This was traditionally a given for Jewish families. Not any more. Specified hours and days, even Shabbat, may be indicated. Shiva had been more ubiquitous than the Pesach seder. A death and a shiva.  Now it seems that many families are just too busy to devote a week to a shiva.,  In Israel, on the other hand, shiva is still observed in the majority of non religious families and in all religious families..

How old was the deceased?  It’s always interesting to read the obituary of an individual who died at age 100 who is survived by siblings!  My own father lived until almost 98 but there are no good genes to thank for that since only one of his siblings came even close to such an old age. But in families where there are multiple centenarians there must be something.  Genes or chopped liver?

And, aside from career, how was the space between birth and death spent?  Did children or grandchildren predecease him?  Is he survived by a spouse after a long marriage?  Or did she die long ago?  And, if so, did he remarry? Jewish? Are there stepchildren?  Blended families sometimes come with their own baggage.

Perhaps the deceased was never married.  That’s another story.

Did the deceased succumb to a long illness?  This could mean suffering and pain.  Or was it a sudden unexpected death?  Shock. Bewilderment. What is a good death anyway?

Some obituaries allow for comments from acquaintances of the deceased.  People will often write, we will always remember Jack.. Then, I wonder, have they learned nothing.  How can they always remember anything?.  They themselves, impossible to believe, but nonetheless true, will not always be alive.

Sometimes reading an obituary will be followed by attendance at the funeral.  If the deceased is someone known to you, you might attend the service which, in itself, has changed dramatically in recent years.  Family members are very likely to share their remembrances and this adds a personal, and often very moving, dimension to the service.

On the other hand, I remember a eulogy at a snowy graveside, in subfrigid New Jersey, delivered by the deceased’s grandson, a rabbi. The rabbi obviously felt compelled to try and kill all those assembled to watch as his 100 year old Bubby was buried.  He went on and on so that, what I most remember, is the biting wind and my frozen toes.  Not the deceased.  So, everything can be overdone.  Or should I say “overkilled.?”

About the Author
Rosanne Skopp is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of fourteen, and great-grandmother of two. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and travels back and forth between homes in New Jersey and Israel. She is currently writing a family history.