Ask most anyone who picks up his hometown newspaper what page he reads first. Most people of a certain age give a cursory glance at the headline on the front page, then turn immediately to the obituaries. I do this myself, and always with trepidation.

As we get older, the bigger the likelihood of losing a contemporary becomes greater exponentially.

It’s human nature and curiosity to wonder whose time was “up,” and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t yet our own. If I knew the person, I read every word and see if there will be a funeral or memorial.

If it’s someone not known to me, I still read to the end, checking if the deceased might have relatives or mutual friends to be consoled.

When I was a teenager, my favorite television program was “The Twilight Zone.” Of all the most curious and terrifying episodes that kept my heavy eyelids from giving into sleep before the parents arrived home was the one where a man bought a newspaper to read on his train ride home and found his own obituary printed a day early.

It’s inevitable: If you were born, you are going to die. It could happen in only the first moments of life, or more than 100 years later. In my thinking, few of us can grasp the concept of our own mortality.

No matter how much time we may have in the interim, it’s sure to end. Nature says, “Boom!” and we’re gone (at least our carnal selves); beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess, but I know it’s something.

So why are obituaries so important? Most everyone has one, whether it be self-penned or the handiwork of a relative or friend. There’s the matter of public record. It’s a tidy way of “signing off,” letting both friends and enemies know you’re no longer around, either to pine for or kick around.

Whether or not we liked a person, there may be family members or friends we care for and want to console. People often choose widely varied ways of “summing things up,” and to whom do they want to direct their self-summations? Sometimes, simply to the memory of the one who has died.

I once saw an obituary directed by the deceased to read: “He was born, he lived, and now he is dead. So stop sending him bills.” Some people just can’t resist putting a little personal “spin” on the ultimate situation, whether laughing, crying or oblivious. So, why not laugh and be joyful for any happiness one has found?

Whether at peace with it, or in anxious fear of it, death remains a certainty. And the unknown? It remains unknown for me, regardless of how clergy, fortunetellers or soothsayers paint the picture. I just know in my soul that there’s more.

I once read an article on euthanasia in which a doctor who was a proponent of “mercy killing” hoped to soothe a terminally ill person who anguished in great and constant pain. He asked a thought-provoking question.

“Tell me something of what you remember about yourself before you were born,” he asked his patient.

“I remember nothing,” the patient replied.

“And that is what you will remember after your death. Nothing.” “Well, what about the soul!” I say. “No soul?” Just for the record, he could never convince me!

But let’s go back to the subject of obituaries. I always like to read them, appreciating the personal ways in which the deceased (if he’s written it himself in preparation for death), or his family or a friend, chooses to “sign off.”

I’m thinking it would be a good exercise (of the mind, heart and soul) to be in charge of the “last of oneself,” as offered to the rest of the world by one’s own self.

I think I’ll work on it, get it just right, as only one’s self could do.

Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.



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