Author Topic: Spencer: In praise of the 'obit' – remarkable lives, shared with all  (Read 193 times)

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Spencer: In praise of the 'obit' – remarkable lives, shared with all

These are beautiful bits of story-telling, made available by families in loving, delightfully unpolished doses.

It seems the stuff of a movie. The young man was born in Estonia, spent his childhood on a farm, then was dispatched to Tallinn for high school. During the Second World War, he travelled to Finland and joined the Finnish army to fight the Soviets. He was gravely injured, but while recovering met his future wife. As the invading Soviets looked to deport Estonians from Finland, he fled to Sweden. He and his wife eventually made their way to Canada, specifically Ottawa, and raised a family. He was awarded the White Rose of Finland medal for his war service.

I never met Eric Jarvlepp, but I read his death notice in the Citizen’s classifieds recently; he sounds like an extraordinary man. As does Allen Cook, featured in the obituary section on the same day. Originally from South Africa, Cook worked diligently to help end apartheid, and managed a global legal human rights program for young lawyers. “He was a remarkably friendly person who cared deeply for others,” his obituary says. Indeed. Friends were to gather in memory of him today.

In the same newspaper, there was also a whimsical obituary of Sally Waldo, described as “strong, and stubborn.” Around her house, the expression “Don’t mess with the redhead” was a common refrain. She volunteered, was generous with everyone but also “had a ferocious backhand on the tennis court.” She belonged to a family with a “quirky sense of humour,” which is clear in the description of her.

I’m not sure when I started becoming a regular reader of the classified advertising obituaries in newspapers. As a journalist, I’ve always scanned the “obits” just in case some terribly important national politician or notorious criminal has passed away, which might require a news story. But at some point, I found myself doing more than casting a cursory glance. Some weekends, I spend as much time absorbed in the obituary entries as I do reviewing the work of my own colleagues.

Maybe it became required personal reading after I had to write the death notice for my own father a few years back. I struggled to craft something that conveyed his generous and gentle spirit, something that would have his friends and family saying, “Yes, that was him, exactly!” As I wrote it, I remembered those instances as a teenager when I made fun of both my parents for the time they spent reading the obits.

I understand better now. It wasn’t simply a case of looking to see if anyone they knew had expired, though that is a natural instinct as we age. It was because you could read about all sorts of different people and their lives outside your own circle – and they weren’t made up, they weren’t characters from a novel or movie, they weren’t social media flashes. They were farmers, or electricians, or people who went bowling, or who carved non-traditional careers or mothered a dozen offspring while finding the time to become amateur musicians. Nor were their lives filtered through the lens of journalists, who often (though not always) find their stories amid controversy, and who have been drilled in the “tell all sides – the good, bad and ugly” school of inquiry. That kind of writing is essential to a democracy, which needs vigilance and challenge, but there are other kinds of storytelling too, and the death notices make it available in delightfully unpolished doses, outside the jagged glibness of the Twitter era.

The magic of the obituaries isn’t just that so many seemingly ordinary people – most of whom you’ve never heard of – have done interesting things; it’s that their families and friends want them remembered not for their sins (which surely they had) but for the best within them. Children and spouses have not forgotten sharp words or bad decisions; they have just come to understand that these did not represent the essence of the person they are describing.

In a world where bleak things sometimes happen, a peaceful Saturday morning meander though these tales presents a collective reminder of human decency and love. It is like a movie – of good lives lived, and of hope for those who remain. Thanks for sharing.

Christina Spencer is the Citizen’s editorial pages editor.


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