I don’t do it to check to see if there’s anyone in there I know. That’s the last thing I want to find. I read them because they’re interesting, even if they don’t say much, which most of them don’t. They’re quite expensive, so most people are very careful about how many words they use. But even at their most minimal, they acknowledge that this person lived, had a life.
You see their age, and whether or not they were married. Whether or not they had children and grandchildren. And great grandchildren. Nieces or nephews. Sisters or brothers. Who their parents were. Where they were born. Where they went to school, where they worked, and why they died. From what. Sometimes they include hobbies and interests. And, because of donation requests, they often tell you what causes and charities were important to them.
From even an ordinary obituary notice you can tell how much someone was liked, loved and respected. What was accomplished and, sometimes, what was left, unfinished.
So really, they are much more than just a notice, an efficient way to inform friends and family of where and when the funeral is. They tell a story. They paint a picture. And in some ways, they’re a validation. That we were here. That our time here counted. That we meant something, to those who knew and loved us. To our communities. To our colleagues and neighbours. And, even to the strangers who are reading about us for the first time, in the newspaper, once we’ve passed.
Of course, sometimes obituary notices bring out the uglier side of human nature. I’ve been told that a lot of older widowed or divorced women read them, to find out who the new crop of available men are. And then there are the cat fights when friends, extended family members and caregivers aren’t mentioned in the notices. It seems that even death can be ‘all about me’.
Reading the obits is, in some ways, like walking through cemeteries, reading the gravestones. You don’t learn as much, but it’s still interesting. You get names, and it’s interesting to see what the ‘fashionable’ names have been generation after generation. You get ages. You can see who’s buried alone, who with a spouse, parents, siblings. Entire families, together forever.
It can get sticky when someone has re-married, though. Back in Montreal my parents knew a particular family quite well. Several years after the mother died, the father (who was elderly by then) re-married. A woman much younger than he was. His children, who resented it, never really gave her a chance. A shame, really, because she made him very happy.
Anyway, when he died, his children insisted that he be buried beside their mother, effectively leaving wife #2 out in the cold. Literally and figuratively. She always insisted that she’d be buried on his other side. I moved away from Montreal long before she died, so I have no idea what happened, in the end. Not sure I want to know, either.
Some cemeteries are not conducive to wandering. They look like factories, with rows and rows and rows of graves. But others are quite lovely. And very peaceful. Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, in Toronto, is one of Canada’s most beautiful (and historic) cemeteries. In fact, that’s where William Lyon Mackenzie King (a former prime minister) and Jennie Smillie-Robinson (Canada’s first female surgeon) are buried.
Walk through it, as many people do, and you’ll find a collection of artworks, one of North America’s finest arboretums, flower gardens, birds, and a comfortable park-like setting. Several years ago when I thought I might walk a marathon, part of our training route went right through Mt. Pleasant. As many do.
But, of course, the most famous final resting place in the world has to be the Taj Mahal, in India. And I was lucky enough to visit. In all honesty, the inside of the mausoleum was a total disappointment. It’s a very small room, with virtually no light. Only one, tiny window. And the sarcophagi, themselves, are fake. The remains of Shah Jahan (who had it built in memory of his third wife, and love of his life, Mumtaz Mahal) and his wife are in a lower level, that is inaccessible to tourists.
The sight of it, however, and its size from the outside are absolutely staggering; as are the gardens surrounding it. And the fountains and reflecting pools. It’s no wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Imagine having a man so much in love with you, he builds a magnificent monument to honour you. That’s a very tough act to follow.