I am well aware of the strong tendency in the throes of advanced age to compare past with present to the strong and eternal deficit of the present. This deficit will become even more pronounced now that the present is in such bad shape that even CNN and several of the Washington papers have noticed.
But I am totally unafraid to say so when some new change for the better bursts on the scene. And here it is -- the new obituaries in the daily paper, in all their folksy explicitness: "Mr. Lambert, better known throughout the community as 'Mr. Eddie,' became the electrical coordinator for the Jazz Festival. ... In preparing for the first weekend of the festival, you would find Mr. Eddie on his black scooter and later in a golf cart dashing by verifying that everyting was working properly electrically."
Or the one, belonging to a lady nicknamed "Other Momma":
"She and her second husband ... were avid Colorado campers, rock and old bottle hunters and mountain climbers. Her other hobbies later in life were needle-point, cross stitching, gardening and watching CNN, football and golf. Other Momma loved her pet dogs and hummingbirds."
And these were the final plans of "Paw-paw" from St. Bernard:
"He loved fishing, growing Creole tomatoes, hot and spicy peppers. He is now in Heaven's Bayou with his favorite red hat, suspenders and fishing pole, along with his good friend, J.E., hooking all those fish that got away. He will be cremated and his remains scattered in one of his favorite fishing holes."
Now, once upon a time, you would never have found such informality and subjectivity in an obituary, unless the dearly departed had achieved such renown that a reporter was assigned to write it.
Things have changed and, like most changes, was caused by money. Obits were once free and usually penned by some funeral home functionary, therefore functional. Now you have to pay for an obit, but with responsibility comes freedom. Your next-of-kin can now author it or, with some good prior planning, you could even write your own. ...
"'It's a great life if you don't weaken.' This was a favorite quotation of Father Peter Brewerton who died. ... He served as a chaplain from 1945 until 1961, during which time he had many converts to the Catholic Faith, including a Japanese war criminal prior to execution."
The poet Wordsworth comping a few lines a few miles above Tintern Abbey came up with these: "That best portion of a good man's life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and love."
That's obits for you, the last chance to capture in print a life of wonderful elasticity which must now be shrunk to some few words in tiny print. His or her little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love: How to proclaim them or even hint at them in such a space?
It can't be done, of course, but that doesn't keep some from trying. ...
"He was without a doubt the most generous and loving spirit who embraced life in painting, dancing, singing and loving. He was a large presence on this earth and will be dearly missed."
Or: "She was a former employee of John Jay Beauty Salons and a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. With a deep compassion for animals, she rescued and provided homes for many feral cats."
On the other side of the fence from cats are birds. A man known as "Uncle Charlie" spent his retirement years "raising and racing pigeons as a member of the Dixie Pigeon Club as well as a friend of the Country and Western Music world. He was an inspiration to many celebrities who crossed his path."
As said before, it can't be done, this gathering of life into fewer words than years lived. Can't be done. But some lives just cry out for the try, the failure. ...
"He loved the New Orleans Saints and will put in a good word for them."
"'For many a flower is born to blush unseen and lose its sweetness on the desert air.' -- Mom and Dad."
"Please come in casual dress (jeans), because Kent did not like suits."
"As a teenager, he boxed for the Fifth Ward Athletic Association, where Archbishop John William Show often attended at ringside to see his favorite fighter ... The name 'Giallanza' in sidewalk tiles still fronts three homes in the French Quarter."
With the coming of new things, there is often the going of old things. Wonderfully, the new obit format has wisely not disturbed the matter of nicknames, a longtime New Orleans practice. So much so that if some nicknames were omitted from the obit, readers would have no idea he or she had died, e.g. "You mean Droopsie's real name was Walter?" On Feb. 18, there were back-to-back obits for Gregory "Hunk of Meat" Landor and Herman "Meathead" Marshall. Pure New Orleans.
But even better are the new thumbnail sketches, which will sometimes tell us something of what we did not know of someone we did not know:
"At Mack's request, there will be no calling hours, services or interment.
"In his memory please consider doing something kind for someone you have not met before, and something extra special for someone you love."