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Now and Then

Examining a life, with compassion and wit

In one of the last classes I attended at the University of New Hampshire in 1947, professor Donald Babcock, philosopher and poet, took an entire class to tell us the importance of the obituary.

He emphasized that human beings can be judged only at the moment of death. Death completes a life in the context of its own time; after the moment of death, the person's life will be seen from a constantly changing perspective.

Within months I was assigned to write obits for the old Boston Herald, the traditional way to be trained as journalist. Writing obits, I learned to get names, ages, addresses, titles, causes of death, accomplishments, survivors' names, and funeral plans right. If you didn't, you heard about it from family and editor, the moment the paper hit the street too late for correction.

I think 50 percent of the problems in print journalism, radio journalism, and television journalism would be solved if journalists had to spend a year writing obits under night city editor Frank Murphy as I did.

Writing obits, you discover how different we all are, the odd and the strait-laced, the evil and the saintly, the worker and the boss. Each person has a story and these stories band us together in tears, yawns, and laughter. Obits seem to be written by formula, but within the short lines, the paragraphs crisp with detail, we can give the dead a brief second life.

Recently my neighbors assigned me to write the obituary of a town character who neighbors knew had lived many distinguished lives, but it was very difficult to document myth, legend, and gossip.

After this task was concluded, I sought relief browsing through bookstores in Concord, Portsmouth, and Exeter, where the staff of my favorite, Water Street Bookstore, provides wit and insight as well as books.

I idly picked up a new book with the interesting title ''The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries." I read a few pages and then a few more, another one or two. It was a keeper.

I pulled over to the side of the road to read more, then sat reading this book-lovers' find. The obits quoted are hilarious, poignant, and insightful. They are examples of journalistic writing at its best, and although the author writes about the dead, they come alive on the page with wit, compassion, respect.

Finally I looked to see who this great writer was. It was Marilyn Johnson, a friend and former colleague. I was not surprised but delighted.

I think it will be the sleeper book of the year. It is a textbook on writing, and I will assign it to a class I am teaching this spring. But it is more than that. It is an instruction on how we should live our different, individual lives. I have given it as a gift and will continue to do so.

Marilyn's book and the difficulty of documenting the facts of my neighhor's life made me call my daughters. ''Would you like me to write my obituary?"

I expected to be told I would never die. One said, ''That's a good idea," and the other said, ''It would be helpful."

I think it is a good idea for all of us male and female geezers. It will be a final annual report, a way to get the facts right and perhaps to discover who you have been and how much you have accomplished.

Don Murray, 120, jam and record collector, died yesterday when his CD collection fell off the walls of his office and crushed him. He was holding a new Ben Webster recording when the floor-to-ceiling shelves trembled and then collapsed.

His daughters played a favorite Ben Webster as search dogs sniffed and clawed his collection.

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