Carl Wernicke: Let's Talk About Death

Jan 23, 2018

A major weakness of our culture is our reluctance to talk about death. Given that it’s the ultimate destination for all of us, that’s a serious weakness. It leaves too many people grappling with their most fundamental fears all alone.

Fortunately, in recent years this taboo has loosened. One result is some excellent advice about the last word on all of us: our obituary. And that advice is that we all ought to write our own. After all, who knows what other people will say about us when we are gone?

I have talked in the past about watching my parents pay avid attention to the obituary pages in the newspaper. I realized that as they aged, they were seeing on those pages more and more of their friends, acquaintances and the people who dominated business, government and culture during their lifetimes. It was a concluding coda to a long life.

I, too, became devoted to reading the obits. While there are few things sadder than  the death notice of someone who dies at a young age, reading the life stories of people who lived long lives is a rewarding look at humanity.

I always marvel when reading of a couple who, after decades together, die within a few days of each other, or even on the same day. It says something about the human spirit, and its power to sustain life beyond what simple physical biology might allow.

If nothing else, writing your own obit helps those left behind get the facts right. I imagine that millions of people would struggle to name the place of birth of a parent or grandparent, much less an aunt or cousin. Would they know the year of their birth? And if there is any person or place you want particularly remembered, who better to note it than yourself? Maybe, at the end of life, your thoughts will go back to your most beloved dog, and your idea of the hereafter will be to run the fields of childhood with him again. Who but you could point that out?

More to the point, I love obits that take a lighter approach. Again, there’s nothing light about a premature death; the saddest, and usually shortest, obits are those of infants, with lifespans marked in days, if not hours.

But those who have reached the end of a long life have earned the right to a jaunty salute and hopefully have learned some perspective. Seeing that honored in an obit is like finding a rare gem shining in the grass.

This was all brought to mind by a recent obit in the News Journal. I didn’t know the man, Charles Hambrick, but he earned his rest with a full life of 90 years.

This was the line that set me off: “He marched to his own drummer. Getting in a car with him offered no certainty of destination or time of return. But an unforgettable adventure on the ‘scenic route’ was guaranteed.”

That fond sentence alone could launch a book. I doubt he wrote it, but it clearly reflects the intimate and loving knowledge of someone, and opens the mind of any reader to this man far more than the writer probably imagined. It tells me that he must have lived a life filled with joy, and I bet he would have enjoyed that sentence.

So much is being written today that no one can keep up. But in terms of immediate reward, it’s hard to beat these small life stories, printed every day. And since you only get one shot at this, why not be the one to pull the trigger?