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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: November 9, 2021

Jane Thibodeau Martin

Obit Habit



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I do something that I guess could be considered a hobby"a weird hobby. I read obituaries, probably 50 or so a week. I read obituaries of people I don't know, not only every single one in this paper but also in online news sources for Wausau and Green Bay. When I travel, I read obituaries in local papers wherever I am.

I don't find them depressing. I have always been rather pragmatic about the fact that no one gets out of this life alive, and I know at some point my own end will come, and I don't find that scary. I find obituaries fascinating because they are a peek into area culture, family dynamics, and other information I wouldn't have access to any other way. Lots of people watch the Kardashians, Survivor, and other "reality shows." An obituary is just a factual mini-reality show about a person's life, sort of like a cliff notes version of a biography.

At their best, they make you feel like you did know the person a bit. Some are incredibly tragic, like the family openly grieving a drug overdose or a child who failed to survive at birth. Some are witty and funny; the love the bereaved family shared showing in their ability to "focus on the good" with all of us. Some make me wish I had known the person, because they strike me as inspirational, courageous, or just all around great human beings. Some led such busy lives I am astonished; dedicating huge blocks of their time to charitable works and positive organizations. At their worst, in my opinion, they are a mechanical recitation of the bare facts, looking like the funeral director had to draft an obituary from an intake form, making do with a few scribbled lines on a piece of paper. This always saddens me, sort of like attending a funeral where the homilist obviously knew little to nothing about the person who died. I've sat through a few of those and I always feel terrible that this will be the last formal tribute to someone. I can tell when someone who knew the person fairly well spent some times on creating an obituary; a last loving gift for the person who died and those who loved them most.

If you read all the obituaries in a single issue of the Peshtigo Times, but lived your whole life in Timbuktu, you would still glean some insight about our local culture. About 30 percent of the obituaries of women over 60 years old mention how much they loved canning. An equal percentage of men's obituaries mention hunting and/or fishing. You'd know many loved going to the casino, and their camp/cabin/shack. And you may not be familiar with the Packers, Badgers, Bucks or Brewers, but you'd know that they are important here, whatever they are.

There are frequent mentions of both fish fries and "old fashioneds," and although you may not have heard of either, you'd know that they are big treats. And of course, probably 60 percent give a nod to the person's beloved grandchildren. Grandchildren get a lot more press than the deceased's children. It's so interesting to me to reflect on that. And it always makes me smile when not only the person's dogs and/or cats are listed as survivors, sometimes pets that have previously gone on to the Rainbow Bridge are also listed in the section for pre-deceased relatives. Clearly, a lot of us really love our pets, possibly more than our in-laws if Fluffy and Spot are listed before the humans. Even grand dogs and cats get mentioned. That's fitting to me, because they are important. My sister's dog Gabby's daily visit was a highlight of my dad's day in his last months.

Family and friends are usually listed, sometimes in great detail. It's easy to see the Wisconsin family units are getting smaller, with 90 year olds having ten or even more surviving children (yes, I always add the number up, it fascinates me to think of having 12 kids,) and 65 year olds more likely having four. And in some obituaries, there are few or even no living blood relatives to mention. In those cases, there are sometimes longtime friends or neighbors listed as "friends" who became family by default, caring for and loving those in need of help without blood relatives. They make it their business to fill that role, becoming relatives of the heart. God bless them, they are living the saying "it takes a village," which doesn't just apply to raising kids. It is a true mark of civilization that those unable to fully care for themselves are taken care of by others, relatives or not.

One final hint about the person comes with a description of observations, if any are planned. There is everything from formal and somber church Masses or services to lively gatherings at local watering holes. I think tailoring the observation to the person's wishes, if they expressed them, makes sense. In other cases, the grieving gathering is all about the family's needs or wishes, which are also important. And if a suggestion is given for expressions of sympathy, that's also interesting. I've seen everything from the National Rifle Association to LGBQ and everything in between and beyond. One last chance for the person who died to influence their world as they leave us.

The person who left this world is gone, but the obituary stands as a history marker as long as print endures. Someone 50 years from now who wants to understand an ancestor or is researching history may look to this for factual information, something I keep in mind when I occasionally write an obituary for someone I knew.

My interest in reading obituaries is shared with my daughter in Seattle. We send good ones back and forth through the mail and electronically. The greater Seattle area has a lot of interesting, quirky and wealthy people who are memorized in obituaries by talented writers, making for fascinating reading. Some of the best of those are further shared with one of my sisters, who is also an obituary reader.

For me, obituaries are way more interesting than watching a television show. It's real life and real death in the obituaries; with lessons to teach me, ironies to note, and mysteries to contemplate.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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