Only the good die young?
December 19, 2010 - 12:00 am
On a daily basis, I read the obituary pages of the Review-Journal. Having lived here since 2000, sadly I recognize names of individuals whose life history has been capsulated in words on those pages.
A few of the narratives demonstrate a creative flair for the person’s demise (including the fact that the individual in effect died peacefully, without regrets, in the company of loved ones, or has gone on to personally embrace the hand of a higher authority). Eyewitness accounts of the latter Rapture are minimal at best.
Many are likely written by family members, who choose to insert observations about the decedent’s hobbies, their notable achievements (all before the age of five), and the family members (who seemingly rival the number of unemployed Las Vegans). I do not criticize the inclusion of this information and would actually argue the “more is more” option. We, as readers, can simply choose when our eyes stop moving downward over the page.
However, one characteristic seems to be growing on these pages with time.
Photographs on the obituary page certainly draw the reader to that entry. They put a “human face” to a person no longer with us.
But on a frequent basis, I am struck by the young ages at which people with a Las Vegas connection are dying, based on the photograph used. I think to myself, “How sad for this youngster … this teenager … this kid to have passed away before being able to experience old age.” They are frequently shown in military uniforms, but seem to be those of a war fought 70 years ago. Had Matthew Brady, the father of photojournalism, been born a century earlier, we would probably be provided with portraits of Revolutionary War veterans as their final passing is acknowledged in today’s newspaper.
From my own personal history, I assume that, with the death of a loved one, the family gathers around to prepare for the coming days. The writing of the obituary falls upon some unfortunate individual who likely feels the weight of the world upon his shoulders. As the next of kin search through their family albums, they come across the one photograph that the decedent “always liked.” Never mind that the photo could have been taken at a high school football game that coincided with the Hoover Dam dedication in 1935.
The photo is then supplied to the newspaper, along with the write-up summarizing the deceased achievements. In some cases, the finished work equals a lengthy tome that might see some young readers pass away from old age by the time they finish.
Lest I sound critical of this very human temptation, I myself chose a beloved photo of my father as a lieutenant commander in his World War II U.S. Navy uniform for his obituary in The Washington Post 28 years following the end of that war. As I hand-carried the photograph through that famed newsroom past reporters writing up their Watergate news, I was informed by the obit writer that such photos had to be taken within the last 10 years. At that point, my math skills failed me and I assured her it was. Fortunately she did not keep up on the changes in military uniforms that took place by 1973.
I am reminded of the phrase, “Do not resent growing old, for many are denied the privilege.” It is understandable that we all wish to be thought of as much, much younger than our chronological body clocks indicate. In some cases, photos of people as they grow into their senior years simply may not exist, which is a shame, for there is great comfort to be taken showing the sheer accomplishment of surviving all that has been tossed our way through the decades. Take delight in knowing that while you surrendered follicles, you did manage to acquire something valuable in its place: wrinkles.
As for me, I am readying my obituary for the Review-Journal when that time comes. In fact, I will save some money by including my preferred photo with this commentary. It was always one of my favorites from early on.
Don Shook is a local writer and owner of Merit Media Relations.