On a recent sunny and unseasonably warm morning I was following my usual Sunday morning routine. As I eat my breakfast (a loose term as it is closer to brunch some days) my habit is to read the voluminous Sunday edition of one of our local papers.
My view through the double windows by my dining room table provides a micro view of my corner of the world. Even though it’s still February the trees and bushes outside my windows are showing buds and my daffodils are close to blooming. The cycle of life is continuing its march of time and is ready to renew itself.
In the particular newspaper I read daily, there are the usual sections; headlines, local news, general interest and sports and so on. The one that I always save for last because it is my favorite is the obituary page. Once again, there will be some of the readers who wonder what kind of a warped person I am. I love cemeteries and obituaries, I’m a ghost hunter and paranormal investigator……obviously, I love death. No, as far as I am concerned death is just another stretch of our journey where we change our mode of travel as we shed our body. What I do love; what fascinates me the most, is the lives of the people buried in those cemeteries and who are spoken of in the obituaries.
In the obits on this particular date there were a wide representation of ages, professions, religions and causes of death. Some were wordy and descriptive and others were bare bone details; just as I have observed on grave stones during my cemetery hops. Several of those listed in the paper were members of the medical profession who had practiced well into their later years. Both had volunteered their skills even after their retirement. Another was a fourth generation farmer who lived and died in the farmhouse he had been born in on the farm his family had owned for close to two hundred years. There were several “blue collar” workers in the mix as well as some housewives and self -employed business owners; a good sampling of those who make the world turn in my area.
On the younger end of the spectrum was a woman in her early 40’s. She had died from complications of a genetic disease. Because this was a fairly common but generally unknown “orphan” disease, at her request the family included details of the disease and asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in her honor to the local support group for this particular condition. By far, the youngest was a 2 month old baby. One would think that there would be little to include in his obituary but the most important words written were that he had a smile on his face always and he loved and had been loved by his family.
Some of the people whose death notices were included on this date had many survivors and a few had none. Many included in the list of survivors those who were considered family of the heart… friends and animals. Often there was an account of the organizations the deceased had belonged to, their achievements at work and the awards they had won.
When I read these snapshots of people’s lives I come away with sadness, not just for their deaths but also because I never got to meet many of them. Most obituaries are written by those that are left behind. In some cases, the control freaks of the world will write their own obits in an effort to continue their hold on their lives even after death. Some are a bit exaggerated in an effort to make the person seem more successful than reality. Others, especially in those who have no survivors, may contain “the facts and only the facts”. Some unassuming people may even request that their families include only the information that they felt was important because they never thought of themselves as special enough to deserve more final words.
No matter what information is included, it always makes me want more. For those who only had a high school degree or GED, did they ever want to continue their studies and get a college degree? Occasionally there will be a death notice where there is no spouse mentioned. It makes me wonder if there were lost loves somewhere in this person’s past. The mention of those who had preceded them in death makes me pause to question if that sibling, parent, grandparent, etc. left a wound unhealed in their heart and spirit. In the case of a child who has died early or was stillborn, what would their lives have been like if they had lived to fulfill the dreams of those that loved and anticipated their births?
In every obituary there are the written facts (or half-truths in some cases) but what it is the unwritten and unspoken that make me wonder. It wasn’t till after the death of an aunt of mine that I found out that she had lost a fiancé in World War 2 before marrying my uncle. The elderly neighbor who died as quietly as he lived who had lost a wife and child in a car crash before I was born but never married again. Although he was never unfriendly, he had always seemed aloof and lonely. There are always stories untold about those around us and often they are so painful they are not included in a death announcement or are only touched on in the minimum of details.
The human in me wishes I could learn the stories of those who surround me. Unfortunately, many of them passed away long before I was born into this life. That’s why I have always said that the best way to keep the memory of our loved ones alive is to share their lives and stories with those left behind. Honor all lives by sharing the stories that are a part of our heritage, whether of blood or vicinity. Everyone has hidden stories in their lives.
As a paranormal researcher, I am also a historian. One of the duties of a conscientious researcher is to explore the possible causes of an alleged haunting. That includes the hypothetical reason for the activity. Whether it is an ancient haunting or a more recent one, the usual cause is what happened to those spirits from the time they were born to the time they died. It is the theory of many that a major trigger is something undone, words unspoken or painful experiences in their lives or deaths. Even when not researching a haunting the group that I belong to, Crawford County Illinois Ghost Hunters Society, are stewards of local history. Our aim is to preserve and protect all historic sites as we study and learn the history of all areas and people.
I mentioned the obituaries of one day only in this column, using those people as examples of lives and deaths. Every day of every year there are deaths because that is one of the only constants in life…we all eventually die. Or rather, our bodies die but it is my belief that the spark that makes us human and unique lives on just as the power that provides the light in a bulb is still there even after the bulb itself dies. I would like to dedicate this column to a friend of a friend, Sarah. Although I never met her in person, I did learn of her through the son of one of my friends who grew up before my eyes into a wonderful and loving human being. Knowing his character, I knew that like attracts like and so I always assumed that a great majority of his friends were as kind as him. In recent months, I learned that Sarah had been diagnosed with cancer. She was in her thirties and had had cancer of the kidney at a young age and she was considered cured. Unfortunately, as I have since found out, sometimes the victims of Wilms tumors (a childhood cancer of the kidney) often develop another form of cancer later in life. This brave young woman was not able to beat it this time, however her love and caring is still alive (as is her indomitable spirit, I am sure). After her death, her obituary was published in the same local paper I read daily. Her family proudly wrote of the many achievements she had made in her short life, the service she had done in the many organizations that she belonged to. I would have been happy to have known her but was not able to meet her. Even in death, she is continuing her service as her family has started a scholarship fund in her honor and memory. Her life was short but her reach was long as she must have influenced so many in her time in body. As always, I have homework for you all. The next time you read an obituary or hear one at a funeral, look beyond the dates of birth and the dates of death. Look at all that occurred in that dash between those dates and use it as a guide. My plans are to start filling my dash a little fuller till that end date arrives. It is not the dates before and after that count, it’s the dash between those dates and what we will it with that matter.