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Writing obituaries creates new appreciation for life

Jan. 29, 1997

The issue:

Being defined by one's work.

Her view:

Work should not be the sum of one's life.

Alyson Ward

Lariat City Editor

I spent the holidays working as an intern at the local newspaper in my hometown. I wrote features and chased some ambulances in that time, but for a few days right around Christmas, my duty was to fill in for the guy who writes obituaries.

'What a depressing job,' one of the reporters said as he walked by me at the obits desk. He had written his share of obituaries as an intern at the same paper.

'You write obituaries all day and then you go home and start coughing and you get paranoid,' he said. 'You start thinking you're going to be the next to go.'

Well, kinda. Obituaries are an interesting type of work. There's a formula to it all, a rigid uniformity that's almost soothing.

So-and-so, 74, died Thursday in a local hospital. . .

Services will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at. . .

Mr. So-and-So was an electrician (or rancher or teacher or politician) until he retired in 1980. . .

Survivors include. . .

And that's about all the guy gets. A few sentences and maybe a scrap of a mug shot if the family provides a photo. And the main body of the obituary mostly just informs the reader about what the man did for a living.

After writing about a dozen of these things, it occurred to me that we've got it all wrong. Why on earth does the average reader care about Mr. So-and-So's job as an electrician? We don't.

I realized, after wondering about several of the names that came across my desk in the newsroom that first day, that obituaries tell people everything except what's important.

People always say we should keep our obituaries in mind and live our lives the way we'd like to be described in the newspaper. That misses the point entirely.

We do that all too often, though. We begin to define ourselves by what we do, not by who we are. Now we're students, and it will only get harder in the coming years as we step into careers that will consume great portions of our lives, taking over completely at times.

Only rarely do I realize how unimportant work is in the grand scheme of life. I often have a hard time convincing myself that what I accomplish in my career does not equal who I am.

And to reinforce the idea of work as identity, the newspaper presents every day a new page of people I'll never get to know. I'll only know their ages and what they did for a living.

When I'm able to step back from the idea that life isn't about a job, it's so obvious that my job isn't what's going to matter when my obituary runs in the morning paper. That makes it much easier to remember to experience life outside of my current and future career. The readers of the morning paper won't ever know the difference, but the people around me will.

And so I've decided that obituaries aren't the guideline for a life well lived. My career will come and go and the obituary will take care of itself; I'd rather put energy into everything else.

Copyright © 1997 The Lariat

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