Sunday, 16 September 2007

"Noticing Death" published September 16

An obsession with death notices is something most often found in the elderly. The sure knowledge that someone you knew has passed away before you is enough to keep old people scanning them daily. I’m not sure if this is a good feeling to have, knowing that you have been pre-deceased, or a bad feeling knowing that your circle of friends is growing ever increasingly smaller.
Being obsessed with death notices when you’re my age, on the other hand, is a simple case of nosiness. It started in my early years as a journalist when you were trained to read every inch of a paper in case something popped up of interest. Now you have shows like Fair Go and What Ever Happened To….to do that. But it’s a hard habit to break because you can tell a lot about a person from their death notice. And in my opinion you can never know too much about strangers.
Popularity is always an important consideration after someone dies. If they get a lot of notices, for many days then you can be assured they were well-liked. One lonely notice detailing the rest home they died in, a few relatives mostly deceased and an age of 94 and you can pretty much assume it was a fairly lonesome old passing.
Personality has only a slim chance of making itself heard in the death notice because it comes down to the nickname. “ Plonker,” “Big Boy,” and “Stinky” are all self-explanatory and impart a certain sense of fun. Likewise “Shrimp,” “Jiggles” and “Fats” require little interpretation although their owners would probably have preferred “Twelve Inch”, “Tits” or “Boulder Boy.”
Frustrating is the insistence on olde worlde language which tells us death notice sleuths absolutely nothing. Like sex and bowel movements, our language around death is required to be in code. No one dies; they pass away or pass on. Dead people are deceased, and they are always cherished or treasured.
“Passed away peacefully” is fair enough as it most likely means someone just died of natural causes at a very old age. But words such as “suddenly” and “unexpectedly” leave the reader hanging somewhat. Suicide or heart failure? We need to know. Car accident, violent stabbing, fishing trip gone wrong, alien abduction? Could someone not tell us the story about how Bob left early to go hunting with his best friend Steve, who then shot him thinking he was a deer. Now that’s a good death notice read on any given day.
Poetry is also encouraging in it’s effort to impart a little more information about a person although I’m now sure the one about God only taking the bes, makes a lot of sense, death being the non selective beast it is. Or the bit about the dead person being needed elsewhere. What for? Being a bank manager for dead people? It’s the amateur poetry not provided by the bible, but inspired by the grieving relatives which can be a little frustrating for its tendency to rhyme stay and away, joke and bloke, go and flow and Kevin and Heaven. I haven’t seen pissed and missed yet but I live in hope.
And of course lately you can have a picture too. I’ve previously written about the care which must be taken in leaving behind a suitable shot of ourselves when we were hot in our 20s to accompany our death notice, but one must now leave instructions as to the clip art you would like to go with your notice. Will it be the red rose outline or just the red rose? The dove and window or the baby angel and dove. Frustratingly none of these illustrations give the nosy parker any more relevant information about the deceased, apart from the fact that their relatives or funeral director like to add that special touch.
And occasionally there are strokes – sorry - of sheer brilliance for the obsessive death notice follower. Times when someone has penned something so gorgeous you sigh with appreciation, such as the great grandchildren who recently said they would miss the cookies and lemonade and the beautiful garden.
Now that’s more like it. If I had it my way death notices would be more like a collection of mini obituaries along the lines of my own…
Nissen, Wendyl, aged 98. Suddenly, outside SPQR, after a short battle with the footpath. In lieu of flowers champagne may be brought to what should be a very interesting party.


Karen said...

Hi Wendyl,
Nice to know someone else stalks death notices too! I have been given a hard time about this for years, but can't stop. I don't even let moving cities stop me - I have had my parents post that section of the Press to where we now live so I can read through the notices. Tragic? And on another note entirely, I am GUTTED about your book not being published! I guess you're a bit annoyed too.....I was so looking forward to reading it, hope still to in some form in the future. Felt very envious of Dominic Bowden boasting of reading his advance copy in one of the weekend papers, lucky bugger. Hang in there, don't let the Australians win!
Kind regards, Karen.

Karen said...

Hi Wendyl,
I laughed when I read this column as I am a fellow death notice stalker - have been given such a hard time over the years for my ghoulish obsession. Can't stop though - haven't let moving cities stop me, as I have had my parents post that section of the Press to where we are now, lol. Reading the Herald ones isn't the same as I don't know who they are, but do it all the same.. On another note I was GUTTED to hear about your book not going ahead at the eleventh hour. I guess you're a bit annoyed too.... I was even more enraged reading Dominic Bowden raving in the Sunday paper about reading an advance copy, lucky bugger! Hang in there and don't let the Australians win - I so want to read this and know so many others will too. Last week must have been hell.