Obituary Photos

by Kathy Coogan

I used to think my husband was a little ghoulish when he turned first thing in the morning to the obituary page of the daily paper as I turned to the comics. He is ten years older than I am (as I take every opportunity to announce) so I thought it was the age-thing. You start looking for the names of contemporaries so you can thank your lucky stars to be the one reading the paper in your boxers. He explained to me that it was a business thing. He is an attorney who does estate planning so he’s looking for unfortunate clients whose families will be calling.

I never read the death notices until recently. As I turned the teeny, tiny pages of our shrunken paper, I found that I was drawn to the photos of some of the deceased. Especially the young ones. My breath catches in my throat when I see the sweet face of an infant or a child weakly smiling. I imagine constructing this mini, abbreviated obituary of this mini, abbreviated life. Beloved child, our little angel, now in heaven, to you we pray.

Teen boys with just a little acne and newly straightened teeth usually appear the next day after a headline in the Local section reporting a horrific car wreck. I always scan for more class pictures of boys then, realizing that kids often ride and often die in groups. Sometimes it’s a girl’s photo, one she probably hated because, what teen-age girl likes pictures of herself? I think she would be saying from the grave, “Not that nerdy one, Mom. I hate my hair.” I bite my lip seeing the mothers and dads thumbing through albums shrouded with tears.

Serious man-boys in military uniform shouldn’t be alphabetized with all the others, ending up near the fold. They should be full-page, in our faces, so we can see who is keeping us safe. Some are married, never having seen their babies. Some are only sons of parents whose family trees are forever prematurely pruned. Handsome, all of them are. And brave, leaving Uncle Sam to hang his head and to lower Old Glory to half-mast. Proud, and I hope at the last, unafraid. I hear Oh Danny Boy playing in my head.

The elderly gents are all celebrated for their working lives after the beloved family has been named. Their images reveal hard or soft-lived lives. Severe or smiling. So-and-so worked for fifty years in sales; or farmed his family fields; or taught or was a union rep. Logos from the armed services are imbedded in the column of those who proudly served in WWII, Korea or ‘Nam, though they rarely talked about it. Flags will be draped then folded into triangles for these men. Others will be missed for their faith, their hope, their charity, their quiet lives.

It’s the oldest ladies whom I love, photographed just from the beauty shoppe, coiffed to beat the band. They wear lipstick outlining perfect dentures, and their best pearl earrings worn special. They leave a raft of kids and grandkids and greats, having survived their beloved husbands for many years. Many have buried a son or daughter and you can see the grief still there, behind the twinkle in their eyes. They are praised for the best Sunday dinners or the most intricate quilts or for working as nurses or teachers for thirty years. They will be missed by hundreds though they would be embarrassed at all the hoopla.

More than ever before, I notice women my own age. The youngest of the baby boomers, who survived breast cancer to walk or run in marathons, only to later succumb fighting all the way. Or who never thought a woman could have a heart attack. Or who put their jobs and families first and were simply worn away by exhaustion or sadness or dread. I pick out one face like mine. I want to pretend that she was having the time of her life on the day of her death. That it came quickly, selfishly, as I would choose it. I want her to say, “I am so proud of the way it all turned out. Too short but that’s okay.”

As I fold the paper for the recycle bin, I think of the comedian who said he only checked the death notices to make sure his name wasn’t in it. And then it was. And I can’t even remember his name.

Something Lighter by Patty

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