Reading & Writing Obits

The most profound details of a loved one's life often don't make the papers


Faith Philosophy

“Going my way?” Well, not yet. Sooner or later, though.

Our word obituary comes from the Latin obire, which means “to go toward.” Many of us read the “obit” when someone famous dies. In such cases the obit was written soon after that someone became famous. That’s standard for the major newspapers.

All of us, in times of sorrow, read the obituaries of our family members. Sometimes we help to write them. And most of us read the obituaries of friends, at least if we’ve kept in touch and especially if they live nearby.

Some of us, especially septuagenarians and up, regularly read the obits. Worst case: the more addled among us who read them see if we made today’s listings. In my case, and I’ll wager I’m not alone, I check to see if the deceased was born before 1946. Can you guess why?

In general, the obituary pages tell us a lot about social strata. The long obits are of prominent people, the not so long are of people whose families are curating the memories of those they have lost, and the “brief candles” at least put a death on public record.

But let’s move from the general to the particular. Let’s go from “All men are mortal” to a friend who has just died. I’m thinking of my friend Peter. Though he’d long been an acquaintance, in the past several months he’d become a friend.

Peter emailed me to get in touch with the spouse of a philosophy colleague of ours who died a few years ago. In retrospect, I think that Peter did so to help his own spouse prepare for his coming death. Peter suffered from a progressive pulmonary disease.

Not surprisingly, Peter and I had lots of philosophy to talk about. We shared a common interest in Thomas Aquinas and the precarious state of Catholic universities. We also shared an interest in political initiatives that reflected Catholic social thought. As our friendship grew, we wondered together where this country of ours was going. Neither of us wanted to see its obituary.

Now it just so happens that I’m a chess afficionado. Peter, I discovered, was a certified chess expert. He became my personal “online” chess tutor. As a result, I was able to become a more gracious loser than before. It’s a good thing, because victory was not to be mine. But chess is only serious to chess players, and I was to discover something far more important about Peter.

My friend was a mystic. He recounted for me an intense experience that he had of our Blessed Mother. It occurred in the context of a meditation on the suffering of Jesus, her son. Because of this experience, Peter told me, he had no fear of death, nor even of the process of dying. His great concern was for his wife.

My own piety, I’d say, is more wintery than fervent. I take purported apparitions with a certain skepticism. And I remember the adage that “mysticism easily leads to schism.” Yet I find myself convinced of the reality of Peter’s experience. I know something of the fruit that it has nourished.

So it is that I now think of Peter as surely among the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us. I do not hesitate to pray for his intercession. And I wonder whether he has already struck up a conversation with St. Thomas Aquinas!


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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