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The Counterintuitive Life Lessons of Obituaries

Reading hundreds of obituaries over the years has taught me three lessons about living well.

I have a strange hobby: reading obituaries.

My university sends me a weekly magazine wherever I am in the world: Taipei, Medellin, Saigon. 

This is part of the reason why Princeton has such a legendary alumni network. The school stays in touch, always. Few organizations – Google, Facebook, the CIA? – can track you like ours. One way the university captures our physical address is by gifting us with the Princeton Alumni Weekly, or PAW. 

The PAW is full of campus news, class notes, and Princetonians doing cool stuff, but what I first flip to is the memorials.

I work my way backwards, from recent classes (Jessica Melore ’03), to older classes (Alexander Caemmerer Jr. ’45). Seeing younger alumni die shakes me. Time is short, our days left unknown. 

What is someone’s legacy? How are people remembered? Which obituaries strike me and why? 

The last question is especially useful in illuminating my priorities (or at least what they should be).

Reading hundreds of PAW obituaries over the years has taught me three lessons about living well.

1. Work occupies the majority of our lives, but takes up little space in our obituaries

From “Steve launched a long career in the global banking industry” to “Dan served as chief of plastic surgery at Tampa General Hospital,” obituaries distill people’s work into 1-2 sentences. 

For example, based on a quick sample of ten obituaries, a person’s work takes up 1.5 sentences (out of 12).

Work is often the primary concern of our adult lives and how we introduce ourselves. Yet work occupies little space in how we are remembered.

To me, the job description sentences, no matter how illustrious, fall flat. They are a necessary but small part of the obituary. And money is never mentioned unless given to others or a cause.

Twelve sentences. Two mention work. Ten everything else.

2. We author our story, but others have the final edit

Every obituary has two sentences: 1) when and how someone dies and 2) who they are survived by.

The living have a morbid curiosity to know how people died. Was it a tragic end or a long time coming? It’s as if knowing how someone’s story ends give us a sense of closure. 

For example, “Mia died May 12, 2019, in San Francisco, after a valiant battle with cancer.” vs. “Dan died Oct. 5, 2019. He was 59.” Dan’s story still feels like a mystery. 

What terrifies me is dying alone, being forgotten. I think we want to know we mattered. We hope our story ends “being surrounded by family” and “missed by friends.”

“Mia is survived by her son, her parents, brother, and her guide dog” and “Dan is survived by his wife, daughter, son, grandson, and many friends from Princeton and beyond.”

We hope family survives us, and that we carry on in people’s memory.

And we do. But probably not the way we expect.

The first and last sentence of every obituary has taught me that we can’t control our life stories. They are ended by unforeseen forces, written by class secretaries or unknown biographers, and survived by family who will tell them their own way.

3. We’re remembered just as much – if not more – for our small moments than our big ones

For me, striking obituaries show a wider contribution to humanity and small, tender moments with one’s daily circle.

Big Contributions

  • Sidney Verba ’59 – An eminent political scientist, winner of awards too numerous to list, and longest serving director of the Harvard Library.
  • W.S. Mervin ’48 – The Lice (1967), often read as response to the Vietnam War, condemns modern man in apocalyptic and visionary terms. His next book, The Carrier of Ladders, won the 1971 Pulitzer, and he donated the award money to anti-war efforts.
  • Emile Karafiol ’55 – Launched the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries, an online database that contains photographs, transcriptions and location information for nearly 100,000 gravestones in cemeteries throughout Poland.

Small Moments

  • “Verba treated everyone – from Nobel Prize winners to undergraduate research assistances – with the same warmth, decency and respect,” recalls Boston College political science professor Kay Scholozman.
  • Merwin moved to Hawaii in 1976 to study with a Zen Buddhist teacher. In 1977, he bought a failed pineapple plantation on Maui and began a painstaking restoration. With his third wife, Paula Dunaway, he built an off-the-grid home and planted more than 3,000 palms. The erstwhile wasteland is now a conservancy dedicated to poetry and ecology. 
  • Karafiol was curious about everything. One year, he invited Kuehn over to watch the Dallas Cowboys play the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, hoping his younger colleague could explain football to him. He loved every kind of music, regularly attending the opera, dragging colleagues to after-hours jazz clubs during out-of-town businesss trips, and organizing a summer expedition to a Grateful Dead concert

We often chase the big moments of having done (directing Harvard’s library, winning a Pulitzer Prize, founding an NGO) and forget the small ones of being (joking, gardening, late night jazz).  

But obituaries show that one’s legacy is often found in the mundane concerns of daily life.

Small moments are when your Dad, after a long drive, carried you out of the car, up the stairs, and tucked you into bed, while you pretended to sleep.

Small moments are the quirky behaviors and unreasonable passions that take up material space in our obituaries, because they leave others with a deep fragrance of our being. 

It’s not just the what, but the how that make one’s life story textured and memorable.

In 2005 I pieced together snippets from five PAW obituaries to craft my ideal obituary:

1. “He was a loving father and husband and a true friend who will be greatly missed by all who love him… 2. John’s citation, which rings true for all who knew him, read in part: ‘gentlest, kindest, most thoughtful and loving (of) human beings…’ 3. He had a good sense of humor and was fun to work with… 4. He was an inspiring orator, writer and teacher. His life was marked by integrity, curiosity, and adventure in exploring the world around him and within… 5. The class salutes a true example of Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of all nations.”

Thank you to 1. Jerry Stockdale ’73, 2. John D. Laupheimer ’52,   3. Herbert E. Cragin Jr. ’33,   4. Henry I. Hall ’50 and  5. Robert M. Schafer ’30 for providing me a legacy from which I can shape my own.

Seeing this 15 years later, I realize all but one sentence describe character, friendship and service. None mention accomplishments. Yet I still strive primarily for recognition and material well-being.  

This mock obituary still inspires me. I wouldn’t change it, even with 15 more years of life experience. That in itself is a lesson. How I treat and serve others should occupy much more of my daily concern.

Soak up every drop of joy…

Obituaries teach us how our life stories will be written and remembered. But 99.9999% of us will soon be forgotten by grandkids, historians, and time.

So why not worry less about legacy and more about living?

The PAW magazine that led to this post had towering figures like Paul Volcker, Federal Reserve Chaiman, John C. Bogle, founder of Vanguard, and W.S. Mervin, two time U.S. poet laureate, but I’m most inspired by two women who died prematurely, Jessica Melore ’03 and Lynn King ’83. 

After Lynn was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer, her focus became finding joy in the end of her life. 

“These were not dark years,” according to her daughter. “These were the best two years I had with her my whole life.”

“The last two years was this explosion of her doing anything that could possibly give her joy because she knew she didn’t have much time left to experience that… Don’t wait to live your life with joy.”

Jessica lived for 20 years with a transplanted heart. She was a three-time cancer survivor and a leg amputee. She died awaiting a second heart transplant and a kidney transplant at 37.

Her classmate wrote, “She devoted herself to sharing her story, helping others, and soaking up every drop of joy life had to offer.”

In the end, why else live?

Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 120, Number 7 (February 12, 2020)

Postscript

Discovering W.S. Merwin’s poetry while writing this was an unexpected treat. The New York Times described Merwin’s work as centering on “life and its damn evanescence.” 

So it seems fitting to share this poem from The Carrier of Ladders (1970).

Last People

Our flowers are numbered
we no longer know where
phrases
last messages written on white pedals
appear as they wither
but in whose language
how could we ask

other messages emerge in smells
we listen
listen
as they grow fainter

when we go home
with what we got
when we climb the stairs reciting ancient deeds
the seas grow deeper
that we rose from
when we open the door
when we shut the door
the dust
goes on falling in our heads
goes on falling in our heart

at the day’s end
all our footsteps are added up
to see how near

what will be left
how long will the old men’s kingdom survive
the lines of pebbles signifying
house
tea cups on stones
who will feed the dogs
it was like this before

it was like this before
triumphs long in the preparing
stumbled through cracking
film light
and we seem to have known
their faces crumpling just before
they vanished
like papers burning
while the features of plants rose out of plants
to watch them pass
to remember

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