I Read the Obits Today, Oh Boy!

Why I love waking up with the dead in The New York Times

by John Stark • Next Avenue
new york times obituary image
Photograph: From NYTimes.com; Rodney White/Associated Press

The first thing I want to know when I get my morning New York Times is who died. I go straight to the obituaries. It's where I meet some of my favorite people — ones I never knew about, like an inventor of Twister.

His obit appeared on Friday. The following day another fascinating one appeared. It was about the man who unleashed a nation of professional dog walkers.

Earlier this month I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a radio DJ. Had I been aware of him when he was alive, I would have tuned in to his show. He played only annoying music — the kind that’s so bad it’s unintentionally funny, like William Shatner singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" or Donald Duck quacking “Amazing Grace.” 

Well, better late than never.

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Not everyone loves the Times obits like I do. A few years ago a man wrote the obituary page editor wanting to know why his father’s death wasn’t worth mentioning. He had been, after all, a prominent Staten Island philanthropist who lived to be 100.

The son was outraged at those who made the cut that week: a shady veterinarian who ran a horse-switching scheme and a woman who created life-sized butter sculptures of cows.

The Times’ Arthur Brisbane, who writes “The Public Editor” column, addressed the son’s query in an article called "Someone Dies: But That Is Only the Beginning."  “Indeed,” he wrote, “Times obituaries go not to the conventionally virtuous but to the famous, the influential, the offbeat and to others whose lives, through writerly intervention, can be alchemized into newsprint literature.”

In other words, having lived a worthy life doesn’t mean it was an interesting one.

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