Last month I read The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood. To be exact, I listened to it. Since I started wearing hearing aids I have found that music does not sound the same in the car. It sounds tinny and grating, like it is coming out of a blown speaker. And being that the majority of my workday is spent in the car and there is only so much NPR and AM news radio I can handle, I started a subscription to Audible. I had wanted to find time to read more, but who sits still that long? With kids and jobs and afterschool activities, taking time to read more than the mail was a chore. Unless of course I am sitting on the beach, in which case the whole world falls away, but I can’t realistically be at the beach every day. So armed with my Audible app, an aux chord and my work car, for 6 hours a day I get to disappear. I get to dissolve into another world, another time, and another life.
So, I listened to this book. And I have found that by listening I feel so much more than I would have by just reading it. Hearing the inflection and intonation of the characters voices can evoke so much more emotion than if had I just read words on a page. Being alone in the car with no distractions, no kids in the background, no watching the clock, I am able to focus so much more on the nuances of each character, setting and story. And I was touched by one of the main characters in this novel and her story.
Vivien’s story is set in 1919, years after she lost the love of her life in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. She has inadvertently become an obituary writer of all things. Drowning in her own grief, she is able to wade through it with others, and get a true picture of their loved ones and the memory they leave behind. She crafts more than just an obituary of dates and accomplishments, she tells a story of a life regardless of how long or short.
An obituary writer. While I was listening to this story I found it fascinating and so touching. I wonder what obituary writers are really like, and do they take as much care and time as Vivien did with each soul that they talk to?
‘Tell me about your loved one’ Vivien starts, and she is not looking for dates or schools or promotions and retirements, she is looking for that flicker of life that is still dancing in someone’s memory. She draws out a story, a smile or a conversation, and brings the dead back to life, ever so briefly so that she can write their story before they disappear forever.
“Obituary writing brought me much more than recognition or awards. When I was doing it, I was a giver. I gave the deceased a stage-center send-off with public recognition of their character and achievements, often one they otherwise would not have had. I gave the dead person’s family my sympathy and then a tangible remembrance for generations unborn.” Jim Nicholson, obituary writer for The Philadelphia Daily News.
It used to be the obituary writer’s job was the low man on the totem pole; the place that journalists started careers, or ended them. It seems unfair. I would think you have to put more thought into writing an obituary than an article on the latest store closing or traffic accident.
I find it fascinating and beautiful, poignant and magical. I wonder secretly if it is something I could do. Would I get lost in the waves of grief that would lap at my door ever morning when I got to work? I think I might. But what an honor, what a gift, to be able to hold those last memories in your hands and lay them to rest with dignity.