Last week, Elizabeth Edwards died. Last night, Richard Holbrooke died. And I’ve been thinking about obituaries.
Reading about Elizabeth Edwards last week in the Washington Post started this whole musing. When a public figure dies, people like to point out that it’s a shame they get more notice after their death than they did during their lives. And it’s often true. I’m conscious of that every time I read an obituary of someone I didn’t pay much attention to during his or her lifetime. Henryk Gorecki is one of those figures. I have a CD or two of his music, but I wouldn’t have made the effort to listen again recently if his death hadn’t brought him back to my attention.
A month ago, I don’t know how much attention I would have given to a news story about Edwards or Holbrooke. I might’ve read it, I might not have. But when I came upon Edwards’s obituary, I read the whole thing. Consciously. And I stopped to wonder about what I was doing. I was aware that I cared more because she had died. Reading her obituary was a form of tribute. It was likely the last time I’d see a substantial news piece about her, and so I read every last word.
I thought of this again this morning, when I was listening to a piece on Holbrooke on NPR. I remember when he was appointed special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but I didn’t remember his role in the Dayton agreement – I was still in high school while he was bringing about peace in the former Yugoslavia. And I wasn’t paying vast amounts of attention to world events. (Some attention, yes. I vividly remember my uncle explaining the history of the Bosnian-Serb conflict as we garnished gefilte fish with cherry tomatoes and bias-sliced carrots before some large family dinner for some Jewish holiday.)
It occurs to me now that obituaries are complete stories. News is news: always in flux, always developing new perspective on the past and new offshoots into what is always the present. There’s a satisfaction, then, a completeness, in reading a story of a life complete. There may be regrets of things not done or wondering about what may have been. But the life itself now has an ending. The arc is complete, and the narrative becomes a story.