The first thing I read in the New York Times every morning is obituaries.
This may sound morbid; but it is not. I wouldn't be surprised if a fair number of other readers of the paper, unbeknownst to me, shared this routine of mine. With me, it actually developed sometimes after the passing of my companion. But it has no relevance to my mourning of her death; it started later. I believe it has more to do with my age. It started sometime when I passed sixty-five.
Earlier, I would read an obituary when it announced the death of a prominent figure, be it in art, music, theatre, science, or politics, as the case may be. We all do. I would take note of the notice on reaching the end of one section or another of the daily paper where obituaries are usually printed. Reading an obituary is not so much an act of mourning a death but of reviewing a life of notable accomplishment and celebrating it. Obituaries are capsule biographies.
Still, obituaries concern death. Anxiously turning to the obituaries every morning, I cannot help feeling a bit peculiar as though I am looking forward to daily deaths like counting up a toll. I register each new death as though I am adding it to an inventory. There is no denying that I am in fact doing that. As I get older there are more names announced dead that I do recognize, more personalities that I have known about, not to speak of a few that I had personally known. It is a fact of life that beyond 65 one begins to lose friends, relatives, and acquaintances in one's own generation and those older much more frequently. The obituary notices get to be more noticeable.
Longevity is a blessing but the longer one lives the greater is the sentiment of loneliness of being left behind. Reading obituaries sharpens this awareness of our mortality. This should spawn melancholy in me; it should be a sure way to spoil the day. But it doesn't. Is this perhaps because I am still in good health and the thought of my own death rarely passes my mind as I read about the deaths of others? Am I infusing strength in my own life, like a vampire, by reading about the deaths of my elders and contemporaries? I doubt that. Still, the truth is that I find reading obituaries curiously enjoyable.
For one, obituaries are stories with a closure unlike the daily news items that are generally interim reports. They are often good stories. One reads about remarkable accomplishments, odd achievements, quirky lives, wild adventures, strange vicissitudes, and forgotten personalities. One reads of distinguished lives with details that were not widely known before or totally unknown to me. One reads of careers that rose and blossomed; one reads of talents that shriveled and petered out. There are lives of people whose names I have never heard of before; there are lives of those whose activities I have been following closely. There are sudden losses and long fruitful lives. Then, there are deaths of bygone celebrities long out of limelight that make me exclaim: "I had no idea that so-and-so was still alive until so recently."
But, most of all, the lure of the daily obituary reading is nostalgia. Although dictionaries define nostalgia as a form of melancholy, it is for me a feeling that is more glowing than mournful. Melancholy is blue; nostalgia is rosy. Reading the lives of the people with whom I shared these decades of my own life, I experience a strong sense of community with them. They may be actors, writers, scholars, artists, musicians, scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, politicians, newscasters, community leaders, even athletes, and other notables who in a sense brought me up and with whom I have seen the world evolve decade after decade. I can almost say that I grew up with them and they are members of my vastly extended family. I feel grateful that they had lived during my life for what they have given me; and I reflect how they enriched my life. Curiously, I feel the same way even when I read the obituaries of those people whom I had not known that they had existed until I learned that they did now that they are gone. Even in hindsight, thinking that we shared the same world warms my heart.
T. Kaori Kitao, 11.10.02