When print newspapers were still popular and I used to get one, sometimes two, daily I often read the obituaries. Not all of them, and not every day. Just once in a while. Before you think me ghoulish, let me tell you my reasons.
Many of us read biographies of famous people to learn how they got to be successful and , perhaps, to use those lessons in our own lives. All very well, particularly when one is young and still making one’s way in the world. However, if one is looking for life lessons, or lessons on living a happy life, reading obituaries makes more sense. Not those of famous people , like the ones you read in the New York Times, but those in the smaller newspapers which are those of ordinary people like you and me. Their stories are more relevant and they have a lot to teach us.
Most of the obituaries deal with mundane details – age, career highlights, place of birth and death, survivors etc. but one or two get into the details of a life well lived. I remember one for instance about ” Jack”, who retired at 65 and spent the better part of the next two decades learning new things. He read voraciously, mostly books on history and other cultures, learned Spanish and French and taught himself to play the piano. Isn’t that a great retirement and an example to emulate?
The last page of The Economist magazine is devoted to a single obituary, usually of a person who never achieved fame though he did something notable. A recent obituary was that of Nicholas Winton, a seemingly unremarkable man, a stockbroker by profession who, before the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia in 1938, rescued almost 700 children and found them homes in England. He did this single-handed, without any help from the British government and he did it because he felt it was the right thing to do. Doggedly, he got the entry permits, forged them himself if necessary, brought the children over and found them good homes. He never thought of himself as a hero and his story only came to light half a century later. In 1988, he was the subject of an episode of the British TV show ” That’s Life”. At one point in the show, the entire audience got to its feet and applauded him – every one of them was a child he had saved, now grown up. And this man, who had never been one to show his feelings, wept with long-suppressed joy. What a moment it must have been ! Sir Nicholas Winton passed away last month, aged 105.
I was reminded about my penchant for reading obituaries when I came across a slim book ” Find the Good” by Heather Lende. It’s a wonderful book. Lende is an obituary writer for a small newspaper in Alaska and in the book she describes how she interviews surviving friends and relatives to find out about the life of the deceased. ( Hence the title of the book). One of the people she wrote about was Hilma, one of thirteen children born to a poor farmer family, As a young woman, Hilma worked as a cook and housekeeper in the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C. There, she met a group of World War II veterans who had purchased an army base outside of the tiny town of Haines, Alaska. Seizing the opportunity, Hilma and her husband Clarence relocated there and set up the Halsingland Hotel ( named for her home province in Sweden). Running a hotel is hard work but Hilma and Clarence thrived on it. Clarence was disabled, so Hilma shouldered most of the burden. Everything she did , she did well. During the tourist season, Clarence and she worked around the clock, seven days a week to keep up with the busloads of tourists that passed through. The rooms were spotlessly clean, the floors were sparkling, the flowers at the hotel entrance thrived under her care and her cooking was sublime. She picked the berries for her home-made jam and baked the hotel’s breakfast biscuits herself. When the tour buses pulled in at dinnertime, she would make the guests, often sixty or more, a buffet style dinner; they’d spend the night at the hotel and next morning she’d give them a fine breakfast before they left for their cruise ship. Immediately the guests left, it was time to strip the beds and begin all over again. Hilma and Clarence themselves lived a spartan life, sharing a tiny room just off the kitchen.
It was a hard life but Hilma had her moments of fun. After working a full day, she would sometimes ski expertly across the town in the moonlight for fun, and exercise too. Sometimes too, in the mornings, she would zoom down the hill on her Swedish bobsled to run errands.
But was there more to Hilma’s life than just hard work and success? Did she know contentment? This little story will answer that question.
Sometimes, when the hotel was not full, Hilma and Clarence would leave their cramped little room and check into the best room available. There Hilma would have a long luxurious soak in the claw footed tub and they would collapse on the sundried sheets for a night of deep dreamless sleep.
By the time, Hilma passed away at age 98, she had outlived two husbands, owned and operated the Halsingland for thirty years and managed the adjacent Port Chilkoot Camper Ground and Laundromat for twenty years more.
Hers was a life well lived, wouldn’t you agree?