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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: When most people die, the only public notice taken is on the obituary page of the local newspaper. There near the classified ads and the weather map the dates of a person’s birth and death are recorded. An entire life is surveyed in a paragraph of several Victorian formulas. When my dear father died earlier this year at the fine age of 96 all of the singularity of his life his charm, his pleasures, his braveries, were buried in the San Francisco Chronicle under phrases like loving husband of and faithful father of — appropriately so. The standard obituary does not mean to intrude into a life’s intimacies. The standard obituary means only to record a life’s passing with the unemotional inflection of a notary.
On the other hand, when the famous die, Presidents and movie stars, crowds of strangers show up to pay their respects or to intrude and we expect to read a detailed obituary in part because death uncloaks the privacy enjoyed by the famous in life, but also because we want to feel close in death to the famous person we both knew so well and didn’t know at all.
On September 11 it was not the famous who died. A fireman whose name we did not know died. Many firemen died, bond traders died. Restaurant workers died. Secretaries died. But after September 11 the New York Times changed the rules of obituary writing. The old genre collapsed. The Times began publishing obituaries of mundane lives, for what had shocked us about September 11 in part was that so many people were killed in the middle of their everyday lives. Gone were the formalities of Victorian prose. Instead Christine Tims is quoted remembering how she met her husband Scott at a New Year’s party in 1995. A son recalls his father, Michael Jacobs, taking him to the Statute of Liberty when he was young; the world seemed too tall. The sister-in-law of Steven Tomsik remembers how he constructed sand castles on the beach for his daughter and someone recalls that Yvette Anderson, who was orphaned at 15, had braided the hair of her ten-year-old daughter the night before.
Nearly two decades ago here in San Francisco when AIDS began savagely intruding in our lives, the Bay Area Reporter — one of the city’s gay newspapers — began publishing similar homespun obituaries. As AIDS threatened the notion of the mundane, the obituary was transformed. Mere formality would not do. A lover remembered a lover; friends remembered friends in the consolations of an unexceptional life, a favorite bar, his knowledge of Turkish carpets, that last moment of his life as his mother held one hand and his lover held the other, and a friend recited the 23rd Psalm.
The breakdown of the formal obituary may be related to a trend funeral directors have noticed — the increasing number of memorial services in America. Perhaps fewer Americans are consoled now by religious services. Or perhaps Americans want no longer to be afraid of death. But increasing numbers of us want to annotate ceremonies of grief with the opportunity to laugh, to tell stories — that charmed summer vacation — that comically disastrous Thanksgiving turkey — the junior prom.
In the 19th century when photography was new, it occurred to poor people that the photograph might grant a kind of immortality. Peasants who could not afford to have their own photographs taken decided to have a dead grandmother or more commonly a dead child photographed, men and women who new so little permanence in their lives stand forever with their dead babies in their arms.
In the New York Times, the portrait of death is less mournful. Either World Trade Center obituary is accompanied by a bright photograph and unlike the celebrity obituary photograph — the silent film star for example whose portrait as a girl of 18 accompanies an obituary of a woman in her 80s — the World Trade Center obituaries show more recent photographs.
One is struck of course by how much youth was stolen from the world on September 11. But look, the faces are smiling: The firemen, bond trader, secretary, restaurant worker, father, husband, mother, boyfriend, wife. Their smiles remind us of how much joy they found in their everyday lives. Jenny Wong smiling. An angel. And Andrew Fisher. And Scott Tims. They are each — all brightly smiling at us even as our hearts break.
I’m Richard Rodriguez.