Reading Obituaries and the Meaning of My Life

Personal authenticity is what endows our life with meaning, not material possessions.

Micah 6:8 provides guidance for a life well lived.
Micah 6:8 provides guidance for a life well lived. (photo: Unsplash)

The newspaper is for people of all ages. The section that a person reads first is a fairly reliable indication of his age group. The primary interest of a very young reader is the comics, or as they are sometimes called, “the funnies.” A few years later, it is the sports section that likely grips his attention. As he acquires financial responsibilities, his preference leans to the stock market. If he is thinking about purchasing a house, the real-estate pages become his top priority. Later in life, in the mellow years of retirement, he may turn directly to the obituary column.

Humorist Robert Benchley once quipped that when he wakes up in the morning the first thing he does is to check the obituary column. If his name is not there, he goes back to bed. Nonetheless, the reporting of those who have recently passed into the next world has an important message for all of us, not only the seniors among us.

It is in the obituaries that one finds a clear sense of the meaning of another person’s life. What does one find here? Let us take a typical example: “Mrs. Jones passed away peacefully in her home at the age of 92. She was a devoted mother to her three children, a faithful wife, a caring sister to her five siblings, and a loyal friend to many.” 

The adjectives (and not her accomplishments) tell the real story of her life and suffuse it with meaning. She was “devoted,” “faithful,” “caring” and “loyal.” She did not wander through life as a mere individual, untouched by the needs of others. She lived beyond the narrow perimeter of individuality. Something radiated from her heart and entered the lives of the people she knew. This reaching out is precisely what gave her, and others as well, meaning.

In today’s world, characterized by affluence, convenience, entertainment, travel, luxury hotels and endless material satisfactions for the consumer, the notion of meaning has become elusive, as it did for Charles Foster Kane. We can “have it all” while bypassing why these accomplishments and accumulations do not give meaning to our lives. Actor Marlon Brando, who, we might say, “had it all,” remarked that when it came time to take his final breath, he would say to himself, “What was that all about?”

In his 1968 award-winning play, I Never Sang for My Father, Robert Anderson portrays a domineering father who lived his entire life as a “self-made man.” It was a self-defeating strategy that kept meaning at bay. “One day,” as the playwright tells us, “sitting in his wheelchair and starring without comprehension at television ... he died ... alone ... without even an orange in his hand.” This is not the substance of a good obituary. 

When a publishing house invited John Paul Getty to write his autobiography, he answered the request on a small business card: “John Paul Getty became a billionaire.” For him, that was the sum and substance of his life.

But Pope St. John Paul II has advised us, “The person who … thinks that he can make his life secure by the possession of material goods alone is deluding himself. Life is slipping away from him, and very soon he will find himself bereft of it without ever having appreciated it for its real meaning” (Evangelium Vitae, 32).

Personal authenticity is what endows our life with meaning, not material possessions. 

“Love,” to cite St. John Paul II once again, is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (Familiaris Consortio, 11). 

It is precisely because Mrs. Jones shared her love with others through devotion, fidelity, care and loyalty that her life was filled with meaning. We can read her obituary with a certain amount of gladness, knowing that her life was well spent and will be fondly remembered.

Meaning should not be difficult to realize. It is eminently accessible, for its root is in the heart. We need only to tap into its continuing presence in order to experience the meaning of our life. Meaning is not so much something we discover (after a certain amount of searching), but a potentiality that is already within us and simply needs to be enkindled.

Another way of putting it is to say that we experience the meaning of our life whenever we fulfill our responsibilities. Spouses have responsibilities to each other as well as to their children. The family is the institution par excellence in which the synthesis of responsibility and meaning are taught, promoted, developed and realized. And let us not forget our responsibilities to God.

Words have meaning. One need only to consult a dictionary to discover what they are. They signify to a knowing power something other than themselves. So, too, human lives have meaning when they reach out beyond their material individuality to grace the lives of others. Meaning, therefore, is the fulfilling of a person’s responsibilities to other persons.

An obituary may sometimes serve as a eulogy. That is a permissible trifle in the spirit of the wise adage, De mortuis, nil nisi bonum (Concerning the dead, say only good things). That being said, when a person passes away, the best thing that can be written about him is that he lived a life of love.