This is the story of an unremarkable man who one evening in April this year, having lived an unremarkable life, quietly stepped out of his body leaving it empty and falling to the ground like a magician’s cloak.
For this unremarkable man the narrative was over, yet Time – without pause, without slowing in any way – tenderly scooped him up and wove his small thread into a story bigger than us all.
As a child I developed a fondness for turning to the ‘Hatched, Matched and Dispatched’ pages of the local paper. It started off as a way of checking that my own family, despite serious misgivings, was normal. I would hold it up by one dog-eared, hand-me-down corner and frown as I submitted it to the litmus test of other families.
These days I still turn to the family announcements. By reading of the significant life events of strangers, I feel as if I am sharing a common experience; that I am a member of a family more extensive even than that of the Newells, who lived next door to my childhood home and were common to a degree my mother feared infectious.
From birth notices whereby parents announce the name of their new arrival – a name encapsulating all their love, expectations and improbable spelling – to milestone birthdays complete with photographs of bowl-cut toddlers and home-knitted uncles. Family announcements are an integral part of any local paper.
And then the deaths, of course. The lives of people ritualistically wrapped up in a tight winding sheet of dates, donations and dearly beloveds.
Let’s stop here for a moment…
We’ve all done it. We’ve all read the death notices and experienced that tug of anxiety, that shiver of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God in the face of a young life cut short – a child, a mother of three, a teenager on a dare. We take a moment to contemplate, to empathise with the family and to be grateful for another bullet dodged. Death has always been, and will always be, so much more final for the young.
But what about the elderly carried off by nothing more newsworthy than a slight cough? We skim-read the details. Shrug. It’s to be expected after all; they had sucked all the juice from their life long ago. And we, still fizzing with plans yet to be realised, choose not to recognise ourselves in them, instead allowing empathy to tumble into a space between.
The fact is we are simply old people who haven’t yet aged; we’re all on a coffin-dodger apprenticeship. Subconsciously we know this and it scares us – they scare us. The elderly have taken that ticket, are occupying that seat in Death’s waiting room. We render them invisible and separate in order that we can sleep at night.
Occasionally there is a bold attempt by an obituary to breathe some colour back into the cheeks of the deceased but it always ends up like the dull round robin your least favourite relative sends at Christmas. There’s no essence or sense of spirit, no trace of familiarity.
The problem is that, as in the case of the unremarkable man above, most of us will live a quiet life and die a quiet death. In the grand narrative of human existence, our individual stories amount to nothing greater than a comma or a full-stop, or the empty space contained by the letter ‘o’. But without punctuation there is no sense. Without the empty space corralled in letters there is no sound. No matter how insignificant our lives, each one is needed to ensure the larger story gets told.
So I have a proposition, an idea to sweep away obituaries as we know them and make sure that when we are old and then die, we are accorded the grace of a moment of shared human fellowship: I propose replacing obituaries with a photograph of the dead person in their prime. No ages, no details – nothing. It will be left for the observer to create a life story from what they see. And it doesn’t matter if the story in no way reflects the reality, because we all live a hundred different stories simultaneously anyway. What I am to my husband, I’m something completely different to my children, my friends, my neighbours. None of us is just one story, just one truth.
In the fleeting time it takes to have a thought, an old person can become solid again. We can see in their eyes a life yet to unwind, a vitality yet to dim. More importantly, we will see ourselves looking back and raising a glass in recognition.
Go on, have a go. Look at the picture below:
Now write him a new story.