A Senior Moment: “Surfin’ the Obits”

Have you heard the tale about a cranky old man who began each day by scanning the obituaries in his morning newspaper before he even got out of bed. When queried about this unusual ritual, his explanation was simple: “If I don’t see my name there, I know I can get up and begin another day.”

As she got older, my mother also had a daily habit of checking the obituaries in the Toronto Star, primarily to see if any of her aging friends or neighbours had died. I like to read the obits in the Globe and Mail which arrives at my doorstep only on Saturdays. But my motivation differs from my mother’s and from that aforementioned grumpy old man.

Because the Globe has a somewhat different readership than the Star or those upstarts—- The National Post or Toronto Sun, many of its obituaries subtly reflect these distinctions. These following references are all from various funeral home announcements published in its April 20th edition. It is interesting how many of the profiled deceased persons have shared a common life journey. One can note the references to private school education: Branksome Hall, Upper Canada College, Lakefield College School. Many obituaries trace professional paths into medicine, law, the clergy, corporate world, nursing or professorships.

It is remarkable how many of these stories begin with a challenging Depression era farm or small town upbringing. One obituary states that a former CEO and Chairman of HJ Heinz Company of Canada was born in 1926 on a farm near tiny Trochu, Alberta. These men and women, now grown resilient through early years’ experience , then venture forth to find success and achievement in the wider world of big city life. A recent and favorite profile about a 101 year old, female English immigrant and war veteran reads like this:

Perhaps from living through the depression or her years in the WRENS, or spending much of her life on a dairy farm, mom would often just say during trying circumstances: “Just get on with it.”

Some Globe obituaries note how many well-educated, professional women, post child-rearing, shifted to volunteer roles in later life, providing countless hours of service to community, church and the arts. I wonder if these lives dedicated to “good works” will be duplicated by current generations. Another feature of post-retirement years was world travel and exploration of exotic places. As one recent obit noted:

“They white-water rafted on the Colorado river; climbed the steps of Machu Picchu; cruised the rivers of Europe and the coast of Chile; and explored the cuisines of Hong Kong and Istanbul.”

I am especially moved by accounts of those now deceased, who were once vibrant young men and women who volunteered in the Second World War. Brief descriptions typically identify only the barest of detail— branch of service, rank and field of combat. One can only imagine what is missing: the sense of adventure all too soon followed by realities of battle, deprivation and death.

While my Saturday Globe and Mail’s biographical profiles may focus primarily on lives of more affluent, higher educated and well-traveled Canadians, they retain several features common to all newspaper obituaries. I find quite touching the stories of immigrants leaving behind the deprivations and trauma of post war Europe. They came from Italy and Sicily, from Britain and Poland, and many from Holland.

A recent Globe account noted how the writer’s father had fled Budapest, Hungary, a year after Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the 1956 uprising.

Another common theme is finding a sentence of poignant, bittersweet beauty placed among more mundane facts and figures of the life of now deceased family members:

“—every place she lived there was a piano, a colourful garden, CBC music on the radio—”

“—they traveled to China to accept their long wished-for daughter—.”

“—she wept with joy on hearing the sound of our new grand piano; she wept with joy at the beauty of the Bow River in Banff as she bicycled beside it—“

Obituaries are, by definition, sad descriptions of a family’s loss. Yet, occasionally, one can find cleverly placed bits of humour which can reveal much about the life and strongly held views of the departed:

“in lieu of flowers, we know that Mike would prefer you to just ‘vote Liberal’.”