I talked recently about wondering, as a younger man, about my parents’ regular habit of reading the obituary page in the newspaper. As I came to learn, that was where they found more and more of their friends, as well as the well-known names from the business, political and society circles that shaped the Pensacola of their generation.
But in reading the page recently, it reminded me that no matter whether you know the names or not, the obits, as we called them in the newspaper business, provide a unique reflection of ourselves.
Newspapers like the New York Times have for years devoted writers and daily space to obituaries, usually for people who are well known, or who should have been well know because of their accomplishments in science, the arts, or business. Some newspapers have, periodically, devoted staff and resources to writing obits of, for lack of a better term, what we call ordinary people.
In other words, you and me.
Over the years I had urged, with varying success, the News Journal to assign reporters to write daily obits drawn from the ranks of the un-famous. I still believe that devoting talented writers to such a task produces the fascinating stories journalism needs, and people want.
Facebook is a testimony to the unflagging interest we have in other people’s lives, and obits illuminate the life-stream that flows around us in such constant motion.
One of the more amusing storylines about Facebook is how watching the self-edited version of people’s evolving lives can make us jealous or insecure, wondering why our lives don’t shine so brightly. This is only partially ameliorated by us knowing that the reality usually lags the Facebook version.
But the obituaries are different, and to not be too delicate about it, it’s hard to be jealous of someone who has died. This seems to create neutral ground for evaluating another person’s life. Reading about accomplishments in an obit might make me feel as if I have underachieved, but it is more likely to come with admiration than with the less generous reaction to a preening post on Facebook.
All this was brought on by reading the obituary in the News Journal of a retired Navy captain, Nace B. Crawford Jr. I don’t remember ever having met or even heard of him, but found myself fascinated to read that he served as a rescue pilot during the Navy’s at-sea recovery mission for the first American in space, Alan Shepard. And Capt. Crawford held, for many years, the record for the farthest rescue at sea for saving the life of a Russian fisherman.
I suppose it might seem ephemeral, but his presence here in Pensacola somehow makes me feel connected to an event such as Shepard’s historic spaceflight; people need connection, and this does that. While I didn’t know Capt. Crawford, it’s easy to imagine that I passed him on the street or sat near him in a restaurant. Perhaps we exchanged a glance on a downtown sidewalk.
And while Capt. Crawford’s story is linked to historical events, I often find it just as fascinating to ready the more ordinary stories of people whose lives are more like mine. They deserve to have these stories told, and we do ourselves a service in reading them.