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Paper Trails of Time
Obituaries are a database of people who did all the right things in life and then died politely. When you were young, your elders told you to find role models to emulate, but if you want to live a life that does not furrow anyone's brows, you should read obituaries and work backward from there. In America, an obit mentions how hardworking the departed were and the ways in which they generated shareholder value. A standard obit then details how prodigious the person was in bed by naming all the offspring produced as a result. Then there is the hobby section, driving home how individualized the person was and how they were more than their job. The hobby section is where they mentioned god and religion for someone who existed before people had hobbies. A good obit would never be so direct about these facts. it would be reverential and kind to the person who passed. Sometimes, the writer, perhaps overcome by grief, would miss the memo on reverence and produce the following (from a real obit, condolences to the dead)
"He changed his major from marine biology to accounting for practical reasons and had a successful career as a self-taught computer scientist but he was always more than that. He was namer of pets"
Occasionally, I browse the obits on Texas Statesman and wonder what mine would say If I died now. He was lazy and is survived by a Substack that his friends liked to call a blog, an M1 Macbook Pro, and several jackets that are too warm for Texas.
No, I do not have a morbid fantasy about obituaries. A couple of months back, my friend mentioned how she had a class on writing obituaries in journalism school. There is even a book of best obits. We both wondered if obituary pages still exist and if people read them. When I was young, my family employed a maid who read obituaries like it was the Lord of the Rings. She would sit on the stoop of the backyard with the day's newspaper and a snack, then open straight to the two-page obituary section. She gasped loudly at a gruesome or tragic obit and then described to me how the person died. Sometimes, my mom would overhear this, and even though she found it rather disturbing, she would not intervene. It was important to keep the maid happy. When someone becomes so ingratiated with your family's day-to-day, their happiness becomes your concern. You morph into an employer who has an anxious attachment style.
Indian newspaper obits usually just mentioned how old the person was and how they died, nothing more. Newspaper real estate was expensive, and in a state that is less than half the size of Texas but bigger in population, a lot of people died. The obits were not that different from matrimonial ads in that regard. The cause of death section got swapped out for adjectives describing skin complexion and voila. Indians are obsessed with skin complexion the same way Americans are obsessed with how tall a person is. This is why I moved. There is nothing fair about my skin complexion, but I am tall. I want my obit to mention that.
When I was a bored child, I sifted through my grandmother's family picture albums and discovered obits of family members who I did not know existed. They were in the form of a 2X4cm newspaper cut out next to an array of photos. The color and wear of the pictures indicated how long they had been dead for. I would then ask my grandmother about them, and she would tell me where they fit in the family tree.
My grandfather passed away over a year ago. We were not close. Someone posted a picture of his obituary, published in the local newspaper, in the family Whatsapp group that I lurk in. It listed all the local organizations that my grandfather helmed. He was always present in the local community. It mentioned where my mom worked, then gestured at how all the other kids and grandkids were in the USA. As if that was enough information to know they made it. The family WhatsApp group is obituaries, wedding pictures, school awards, and milestones—a database of people who have done the right things. Sometimes, my father posts long monologues in the group, congratulating someone who just did the right thing or lamenting the loss of someone who used to do the right thing. I can't help but read it with the undertones of snark and disappointment aimed at his son, who never did the right thing.
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