Danny Heitman: “An Obituary Is the Story of a Life, Not a Death”

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Danny Heitman headlined “An Obituary Is the Story of a Life, Not a Death”:

I didn’t set out to write obituaries. I suppose no one does. A couple of years ago, I began editing the quarterly magazine of an academic honor society. One of my duties involved writing death notices of deceased members.

The prospect of writing about death seemed daunting, especially as a pandemic spread across the globe. Amid so many headlines about loss, I didn’t relish the thought of sitting at a keyboard and focusing on the departed.

But I quickly learned what every obituary writer eventually does: A good obituary isn’t a story about death; it’s a celebration of life.

I’m thinking about John Neitzke (1953-2021), a longtime professor of computer science at Missouri’s Truman State University who enjoyed designing and baking novelty cakes for colleagues and family members. He made a green tractor cake for a friend, wryly bending one of his principles to make someone else happy. “Real tractors,” Neitzke said, “are red.”

I also learned about Randy Alford (1953-2020), a faculty member at the Florida Institute of Technology who shined as the designated announcer of graduates at the university’s commencement ceremonies. He took great care in pronouncing the names of students from dozens of countries perfectly, insistent that their hard-earned moment in the spotlight would be flawless.

I still tear up when I think about Deatra Sullivan-Morgan (1962-2019), who died more than 25 years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A professor at Elmhurst University in Illinois whose career had taken her to several campuses, she was known for buying groceries and train tickets for struggling students and even purchasing shoes for them so they would be properly dressed for job interviews.

It’s a privilege to bear witness to lives like that, and I’ve been thinking of them all as one year closes and another begins. I’ll resolve to live a life worthy of its own bright story when the time comes for me.

Danny Heitman is editor of Phi Kappa Phi’s Forum magazine and a columnist for the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate.


Speak Your Mind