Here’s why I read obits in The NY Times everyday. Not for schadenfreude, because people my age and even younger are dead and I’m still breathing. Not because I used to edit obits of dead professors for the University of California so I can infer what’s been deliberately left out of the story (debts, drinking, and depression). And not because I’m secretly drafting my own obit, which I’m sure won’t extend beyond the hyperlocal Berkeley news site.
It’s because obits tell stories that reflect what matters in our culture and in our past. They surprise me by demarcating the differences between then and now, and also the similarities. They define what makes us human and also what makes some of us inhuman.
Obits put a life in perspective. Imagine Monica Lewinsky’s obit half a century from now. Her Scarlet Letter capers with Bill Clinton (and his with hers, which have already been stashed beneath his piles of eponymous Global Initiatives) might appear insignificant should a future U.S. president engage in even more scandalous behavior: group sex parties with the Brazilian ambassadorial entourage? Gang rapes of visiting White House Girl Scout delegations? The imagination is perverse.
Obits are histories of war, memes, art, music, movies, race, gender, the law, sports, business and crime. If you collected all the obits from the Times since its beginning in 1851, you’d have a chronicle of U.S. history more compelling than the stuff they make you read in the fifth grade about why Washington crossed the Delaware, which is all I can recall from fifth grade U.S. history. In fact, I can’t even recall why he crossed that river, although I can see a painting of him with his hamantaschen-shaped hat and white knee-highs standing in the front of an open rowboat that looked ready to keel.
Of course, there are all the people you’ve known who didn’t make the obits of The NY Times and who should have. Like my friend Eckhart Wintzen, a Dutch inventor and entrepreneur whose company, Origin (bought by Phillips) was the first to include an environmental impact assessment in its annual investor reports. Eckhart tried to get the Dutch government to make such assessments mandatory for large companies because he believed early on that our planet was in trouble and businesses should take responsibility for protecting it.
He was the first funder of Wired magazine, and bought a copy of the first issue for each of his thousands of employees. He built the Expression College of Digital Arts in Berkeley, San Jose, and San Francisco because he believed that working in the arts could not only save the planet but also inspire its people.
Eckhart was a child during WWI in the Netherlands, which was occupied by the German military. He told me the last year of the war – 1945 – his family subsisted on tulip bulbs. “Was it hard?” I asked. He roared with laughter and grinned in his disconcerting yet beckoning Dionysian way. “They were delicious,” he said. And smacked his lips.