Thursday, February 28, 2013

Finding Philosophy in Obituaries

I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.
-Benjamin Franklin

Today is the end of innocence for this blog. (just had to use that line once this month while studying childlike innocence) March begins with a look at childlike sincerity. Before I say goodbye to books about guilt, shame, purity and whole heartedness, I had a conversation with a local philosopher. Actually, Andrew Meacham’s day job is writing obituaries for the Tampa Bay Times. What you can learn from a philosophy student turned obituary writer may seem like a stretch for the topic of childlike innocence. But read on.

Meacham estimates not a majority, but “many" families who he contacts for stories are in the middle of some type of  rift or feud. If he had to put a number on it- he estimates less than fifty percent and more than twenty. So I am going with one third. That means roughly 3.3 out of 10 people will go to their grave without forgiving a sibling of a slight or resenting a child for not appreciating them enough or judging a parent for not loving them enough. Thirty three percent of people will live their lives separated from the people who know them best. Odds are that you or someone you care for will pass without letting go of weighty grudges.

Before we cut to Meacham’s philosophy on innocence, a little bit about his fascinating job. He says studying philosophy in college qualified him to carry and dig stuff up. He worked as an unskilled laborer for years before learning the trade of tying steel rebar. Eventually, he left construction and started freelance writing for the neighborhood news section of the Times. A regular beat meant more ink, which every writer wants, even if that means writing about the dead for a living.

I like the idea of trying to find the essence of a person. Everybody has a story. From prominent lawyers and doctors and politicians to a guy who died while being chased by police. Every life has meaning. I have written about a woman who likes to watch soap operas with her cat, a homeless veteran who died in a tent in someone’s backyard and circus performers. “ Meacham explains.

“It is not as depressing as you might think.” Meacham continued. “ In the midst of all this pain, people have a lot of tasks. Dealing with funeral arrangements, clerical stuff, you have to be social at a time when you are feeling numb. It takes a lot of energy to deal with condolences. In the middle of that, being able to talk to me and tell stories gives people a chance to laugh. I laugh a lot. People tell me really funny stories.”

Obituaries run on average 14 inches or about 800 words. Meacham has done obituaries as long as 80 inches when dealing with a teen whose suicide was blamed on “sexting”. Summing up a life or a senseless death within the confines of inches is no easy assignment. Still, he finds fulfillment in his job. He enjoys the freedom to choose whom he will write about.  There is usually something in the paid obituaries that catches his eye and makes him want to learn more.

Most people have an archaic idea of obituaries. Most people think of it as a list of accomplishments or affiliations. Most people speak in cliché’s like ‘never met a stranger’ or ‘always had a smile’. All that stuff misses the unique essence of a person. I have written about respectable people where there was no warmth. Sometimes the people who are the most anti-social are the most interesting. I wrote about a memorial they had at the Clock restaurant  for the grouchiest customer. They called him Spook. The first time the manager asked him if he wanted a refill on his coffee, Spook told the manager to leave him the hell alone. But they loved that guy.”

Meacham was not advocating being anti-social or grouchy. But when I asked him his advice on being more childlike and cultivating childlike innocence, he was quick to respond.

“Both from a personal perspective and from writing more than one thousand obituaries, I would say it is important to have fun. Otherwise, what is the point? Tell people you love that you love them. Make sure that you don’t put off doing the things that you want to do.”

If an obituary writer contacted your family, would you be one of the families feuding?If so, can you change that?

For today's "Sky's the Limit" on what you can learn: Did you know there is a  "grandmaster" of obituary writers? Jim Nicholson is Meacham's mentor and quite famous in obituary circles. Did you know there were circles? Nicholson turned  writing obituaries into an art form and has since earned the only Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. I didn't even know there was such a society. The organization's mission is to make sure obituaries are treated like once-in-a-lifetime stories and are researched and reported with great care. Who knew?

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