“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.”
— Martin Heidegger
I am an obituary writer. I am not a member of The Society of Obituary Writers and I have never taken any classes on how to write an obituary. I have no formal qualification or training. Let me ask you, what do you imagine when you think of an obituary writer? An Edgar Allen Poe wannabe help up in a dingy basement? Perhaps, a bitter old writer comprising a living? For some reason, I used to imagine a woman in her late 60s, educated, with proper manners, perhaps an etiquette instructor of yesteryear. I am not sure why but it seems for most of us, an obituary should follow a certain form. But I never learned this form. I have my own set of questions, I ask of the bereaved and then I insist on meeting the subject wherever possible and I insist on looking into their cold dead eyes.
Truth be told I am a ghost writer. I write farewell letters between you and your dead loved ones, in special code. And further truth be told, it is the same letter every time, someone dies. Your dead husband was not special. His life was no more or no less full than the next person. But I can make it seem that way. Your dead pre-pubescent daughter was not a unique flower about to blossom. But I can make it seem that way. And when you die you will be nothing out of the ordinary also. The human mind is so held-up in its own ego, it needs to believe in its own eternal 'exceptionality' but we all follow the same trajectory. We are all born so the universe can try and look at itself in the mirror through yet another angle and then we all return to everything again, our lives meaning profoundly little and beautifully everything. But I can make it seem ever-so-special for the benefit of those left behind.
Obituary writing is a very fruitful business because people keep dying and always will. We all die. Unless, Ray Kurzweil has his way and we attain immortality via computer upload. And then I’m done for. My secret profession will cease to be and I will cease to be and so will the universe. This I know.
I am a young man. But I am a grown man. I am twenty-nine. I have been an obituary writer for four years, since the day I accepted my own mortality. My ‘day-job’ is a night job. I work as a security guard for a building in the city-center that houses the head offices for a telecommunications company. Nothing has done more to disconnect us than the advent of mass cell phone and Internet usage. This I know. It’s a wonderfully horrible illusion. I am surprised more people don’t try to burn this building down in frustration for I would let them. Burn it down or ask your neighbour over for tea. Both will take tremendous courage.
In such a world it is easy to not think about death and this is why you need me to do it for you. You are busy writing your life story, constructing your perfect profile, working towards an ideal, and you are avoiding death. They say life is a journey but really it is not. It just is. If there is any destination at all, it is your non-existence and that can be a real brain-fart of a concept. And that is how I make my living. Because, of your inability to think about death, I can live a full and free life.
When someone dies, I think about the work it will provide me and I get a jolt of energy. The stars shine brighter and the wind feels crisper, each and every time. Sometimes, on my work break, I walk around the city. Every person I encounter, I think to myself, they are going to die and I could write their obituary and make a nice little earner. I wonder who will miss them, what they did with their lives, what they did not do, who they matter to, are they alone or not, what they felt their life-calling was and what got in the way of that calling, what they settled for and how I will put a inimitable spin on this from the perspective of their oldest son, or widow, and how well it will read in the Sunday Paper. And I return to work feeling,
really feeling, clearer.
I am obituary writer. I think about death frequently. I think about death many times a day. Nearly every waking moment, aside from taking care of my basic needs, eating, shitting and so on, I am thinking about how you and I are going to meet our end. Old age, horrible diseases and accidents. Sometimes, an unknown swordsman will cut off our heads from out of nowhere. Sometimes spontaneous explosions just blow us to infinite pieces. And I think about ironing-out the confusion that leads up to that liberating moment.
So let me write your loved one’s obituary. Let me write yours. It will be easy. I have had lots of practice with an extensive portfolio for you to peruse.
I have your life down to formulaic science but I can make your death read like magnificent poetry.