My Dad and I played the morbidly amusing game of Look Who Died This Year over the phone last week. I pulled up this list of “Notable Deaths”, quizzed him on who all the baseball players were, got to hear his memories about where he was the night of the 1956 no-hitter World Series game, and had an all-round great conversation at the expense of a lot of dead people.
Some pretty illustrious people died in 2020, which on one hand is a shame (Jerry Stiller: gone too soon), and on the other hand is a powerful memento mori reminder that we are all totally temporary. Studies have made it clear that famous people’s deaths do a bang-up job of underscoring the “carpe diem” message — so while I’m all about acknowledging the Deaths of the Rich and Famous (dear God, you know I want to host that show — with or without a Robin Leach accent), I’m also curious about all the un-notable people who’ve died.
What do the deaths of the nobodies — the normal people like you and me — have to teach us about life?
The New York Times doesn’t highlight the obit for Bill the accountant from suburban Cincinnati, or for those of countless girls next door (pardon me — grandmas next door), of course. While their lives aren’t notable enough for headlines, they are no less remarkable. Dare I say that these everyday people’s obituaries are even more compelling, because their lives resemble our lives more so than those with fame and fortune? We can relate to the highs and lows of Bill’s suburban-Cincy life in ways we can’t seem to do with Alex Trebek.
So I did what perfectly normal people do on Christmas morning — I went onto legacy.com and perused the obituaries of total strangers. Shirley from Nebraska loved to read, spending hours on her Kindle at the ripe age of 88. Nell, who “never met a stranger” from Albuquerque, passed away at 98 and had a proud career as a “professional secretary” (versus an unprofessional secretary?). Rocco, 74, was a fun grandpa to his two grandkids in Chicago. Tragedies were peppered in amidst the litany of elderly passings: James in Iowa spent countless hours fishing with his girlfriend Jodi before his fatal car accident at 46. A 20-year-old college student in Indiana named Bethany died in her dorm room from complications related to covid-19.
When almost-centenarians die, we tend to accept and even dismiss their deaths. Death is on the to-do list when you’re north of 85, right? Yet when people our own age or younger die, we snap to attention with the gripping fear that “it could have been me”. Our ephemerality comes into much clearer view, and that’s what we’re after, friends. The vicarious wake-up call to live — because our next car ride might be our last, because covid could seep its way into our still-unvaccinated selves, because Anything Could Happen. Life could happen, and we might be the next obituary that other people are gripped by, woken up by.
This isn’t meant to be a holiday buzzkill; it’s just the opposite, in fact.
I am recommending that you read about the deaths of everyday people every now and then in an effort to infuse life into your life while you’re still fortunate enough to have one. Getting a glimpse into what other people have lost — like their grandpa Rocco, for example — sparks empathy for others, an appreciation for the people you care about (grandpa, maybe?), and least of all, your own life.
I take my life for granted until I consciously zero in on what I have to lose. Looking deep into the eyes of everyday folks’ obituary photos and reading about their lives is the most impactful thing I’ve done in a long time to motivate myself to live like I mean it. I dare you to do it too and tell me it didn’t stir you. Let’s stir shit up.