The Day of No Dead

Prior to this day, I had never stopped to read the Obits, which without fail come right before Editorial & Opinion. And yet by the time I got to U.S. Politics, I sensed something was missing. At first, I ignored this feeling, but when nothing in this section grabbed my attention, I flipped back to the beginning.

Imagine traveling from San Diego to Los Angeles and not spotting those buildings in the shape of a woman’s breasts about an hour into driving. Without this landmark, you may lose your bearings and begin doubting that you’re on the right path. You may even turn back. Which is what I did. I turned back to where the Obits were supposed to be and they simply were not there.

First, I looked for signs of mischief. Perhaps the deliveryman wanted this section for himself. There were no rips or tears to speak of. Then I checked to see if the day’s obituaries had been placed elsewhere in the paper, perhaps accidentally. They were nowhere to be found – not clumsily placed in with sports, not even confused with the comic strips.

I didn’t stop there. I searched the online version of the paper of the same date just to see if the same error (assuming this exclusion was indeed an error) had been made. First, I clicked on “Obituaries,” and then on “Today” where you’re given an alphabetical list by last names. No A’s, B’s, all the way to F’s. And then I clicked on “View All Obituaries.” Blank. So then I tried “Yesterday.” There was something like 30 deaths reported, 5 names starting with B and only one T.

What was it about Today? Could it be that there were simply no deaths to speak of? I clicked on an obit from Yesterday and this is what appeared before me:

JOHNSON, JOHN G. Born July 1, 1952. Died May 1, 2003. John wrote books. He died.

And another:

VARGAS, ANTONIO 2/25/60 – 4/13/03 American Cremation.

These were only two of many listed under Yesterday, but none for Today.

I decided to call the local paper and ask them for an explanation. They said they’d look into it and get back to me. In the meantime, I read more obituaries. I read some online and every single one in the daily paper until I recognized a predictable pattern in format: name, date of birth, family background, youth, marriages, life passions, education, achievements and awards. And yet this simplicity of structure led me to jot down these inquiries as they came to me:

Cause of death. Why do some state it, while others don’t? Most often, those that don’t are write-ups of individuals who died at a ‘natural’ age, say anywhere from 70 to 80. The cause of death, therefore, should be obvious. Those that do state the cause of death often do so in this manner: Betty died peacefully in her sleep. How can one know such a thing? Does this not assume that sleep is universally a tranquil experience? What if instead, Betty fought against the nightmare of death enveloping her as she lay in bed, her soul clenched in its claws as it pulled her down into a gravity stronger than that of the earth, her mind alert but without the ability to speak or cry out, trapped in a body failing in its functions, minute by slow minute, hour by hour? Of course, none of this is said in Betty’s brief obituary. Unlike fictional structures, obits have room for only the necessary. No obit writer – professional or not – drags out the really unusual or grisly details such as a stake knife to the heart or accidental suicide. Left to the discretion of the family member or friend, death is reduced to its most clinical, basic explanation.

Dave has been survived by his faithful wife of 30 years and a grandson and one niece. Don’t those who survive know that they do so? The information, then, can’t be for their benefit. Then for whose benefit is this bit written? Dave’s wife and teenage children continue to survive for the sole purpose of keeping his memory alive.

Liz was preceded in death by her father and mother and eldest brother. You know the saying parents should never outlive their children. The legacy of this natural state of human affairs – though there are exceptions – must not be broken for you, dear reader of the daily obituaries.

I read on. I read the local who are dubbed famous and thus take up almost the entire page, squeezing into tiny print the John Gs and Anthony’s. Unfair, I decided, considering that both large and small in fame takes up equal amounts of space when deceased.

Smith, George, Professor whose research in particle physics played a vital role in the first space shuttle design. Included are all the little details that emphasize the importance of his specific contributions to the scientific community, leaving nothing to the imagination. And so, Professor Smith’s legacy is consigned to Lauded Professor of Physics in almost 100 lines.

John G. wrote books. He died.

Had the Lauded Professor been summarized: Smith, George Professor of Physics. Contributed his part to the whole of the scientific community, how many more one or two-liners could have been made to fit?

MARCUS, LEANN Lived a full life, demonstrated by her loyal dedication for 30 years to the firm.

LIZARRO, CASS Loved her family, loved the Lord.

FRANCO, JULIAN Predeceased by wife and now they are together in heaven.

KOVAN, GER Mother of 2, Friend of Dozens.

DURAN, DINA Chef extraordinaire, devoted godmother of Lizzy, loving cousin to Fred, Robin and Chance.

I read so many that they followed me to the grocery store. I began reciting them like lines of poetry in the fresh produce section:

RHYDE, RONALD Left us on July 11 at 0815. Passed away in the company of a visiting troop of showgirls.

LIN, LEE Born in Los Angeles, California, the land of opportunity. Died somewhere else.

While skimming the sugar content of packages of candy:

ALVAREZ, EDWARD Surgeon at Sharp Medical for 40 years. Died two years after retirement.

SOMMERS, BARB Experimented with new forms of plastic surgery. Luckily, died before every needing any.

CALLIS, DIMITRI Wrote Y.A. novels. Married 20 years. Left behind a wife but no children.

BACKER, BECKA Author of children’s books. Died without ever having them.

At the gas station:

PARKS, NATHAN Mazatlan Mortuary, (740) 221-3318.

TATE, RONALD FAYE 01/24/36 – 10/7/2015 Preferred Cremation & Burial.

VALANZUELA, MANUEL “MANNY” ZEPEDA Preferred to dig his own grave.

At the liquor store:

Larry would never forgive us for a sad story, so in honor of his life, we raise our glasses of Vodka and tonic and say, “Here’s to you, dear Larry! We love and miss you terribly.”

Larry may have strolled this same aisle once – the shelves full of alcohol of all kinds. His friends had to choose something. They chose to toast his taste in drinks and happy songs.

I still have a choice – London Dry or Dutch Gin. I cry. Two for one, top shelf, or sales bin.

Sum me up. Fold me. Place in drawer.

Months have passed and the local paper hasn’t called me back. When I finally reach them, I wonder what their story will be. I wonder if it was simply an oversight and if they’ll work back retroactively. I say don’t dig up the dead. There’s plenty to read already.

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