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Obits tell tales of heroism, fate, love

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They are our dead—found each day on the back page of the newspaper. More often than not they're smiling contentedly, as if to say, "This world you've been reading about, it's no longer our concern. It's your headache now."

However unintended, the placement of the obituary page makes a simple but sublime statement. It comes on the backside of the dutifully reported mayhem. The international, national, and local chaos concludes with those serene expressions, staring up from the page.

It's oddly soothing and unsettling to arrive at this portion of the paper. There they are, all gathered, a squad of fresh explorers, heading into the great unknown.

So long, I've often thought. You are merely today's migrants. Tomorrow will bring a different crew, packed and on the train. I will bid farewell to those as well, and the next day do the same, and the next, and the next, until I am the one looking up from the thin, gray page.

There is no story in the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press that has more to say to us than the obituary page—no editorial, no front-page scoop.

If I were to add my two cents to the trite, sardine-packed self-help section of today's big chain bookstore, my title would read, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Obits.

When I was a boy, the obituaries taught me that my neighbors were moving on each day in astonishing numbers. It had a greater effect on me than riding past a cemetery. There the stones never changed. Obits, on the other hand, were restocked daily. It was breathtaking how many were checking out, week in and week out. It would have been comforting to my weary eyes to encounter at least a few hospital maternity room photos, just to lend some balance. But no, it was death and death only.

Through the obituaries I came to learn of the inequity in the world. The more accomplished received a headline and article with their passing. A skilled reporter made calls, took notes, and eloquently detailed their life's work. Others, deemed less significant, settled for a perfunctory death notice, taken in a kind of shorthand, paid for by next of kin.

It was in the obits that I encountered heroism (long, courageous battle with cancer), saw the seemingly random nature of fate (died unexpectedly), took in the poignant beauty of love (died peacefully surrounded by family and friends).

But it was the photographed faces that came to stand out most powerfully. Wonderful faces all—alive and alert—looking just like my neighbors and friends, relatives and co-workers. People like me, here one day, raking a lawn, feeding a dog, then suddenly pulled from our human circle, for no known reason, no known purpose.

To this day, when I view these faces, I feel a vague longing for those now-absent souls. I find even the grumpier mugs endearing. I feel myself missing each of them, without having met a one.

There's been debate, of late, over these photos. Within the last month, a much-publicized Ohio State University study found that, while people are dying older, obit photos are getting younger. Families of the dead are offering more youthful photos of their loved ones for publication. The desire is to depict a parent or grandparent "in their prime." Some view this as an example of age bias. Fueling the controversy is the study's finding that families of deceased women are twice as likely to offer a younger version of their loved one as families of deceased men. The ageism-sexism combination has made for spirited discussion on numerous blogs over the last three weeks.

The debate leaves me uninspired. It misses the larger statement: Whatever age is being featured in those photos, the person from that era is gone. Gone is the 29-year-old version, gone is the 42-year-old offering, and gone is the final 85-year-old presentation. Whatever age, the effect is the same. That winsome expression has been erased, the light in the eyes extinguished. Let's not quibble. If the goal is to post the most recent image, demand a photo of the corpse.

No, for me it's the fleeting image of life itself that is the story. Coming across the obits each day, I have the same thoughts no matter what photos I encounter: Where to, everybody, where to?