A Serial Obituary Reader

By Steven M. Bernstein

I’ve always considered our propensity to die in alphabetical order one of our more enlightened traditions. In a world of randomness and strife, there’s something oddly reassuring in the absolute certainty that each day ADAMS-John, COOPER-Joan, WEBER-Charles, and ZEMBROSKY-Hilda will advance to the hereafter with a sense of orderliness and decorum. Regrettably, women with hyphenated surnames often bring chaos to this otherwise genteel ritual.

The mere knowledge of the passing of ADAMS-John is scarcely sufficient. Were that the case, obituaries would be no more than a perfunctory listing of the names of the recently departed. Rather, protocol requires that at the very least we account for the cause, location, and circumstances of the death, as in — Mr. Adams passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family following a courageous battle with cancer. Oh to be a fly on the wall when Elvis’s death notice was crafted.

In their grandest form, paid obituaries in The New York Times can occupy entire columns of pricey newspaper real estate, as loving family members or well-compensated publicity agents recount every instance of the late individual’s life, beginning with that fifth-grade service award. 

Prominent individuals who have served on the boards of numerous charitable organizations often inspire a bumper crop of obituaries. Not-for-profit organizations, fearful of being conspicuous by their absence, struggle to beat print deadlines and pay homage to their beloved late trustees. I know this because I have written many of them. Presumably, (s)he who dies with the most obituaries wins.

Traditional obituaries for current or former C-suite officers seldom suffice. In such cases, well-placed ads, quarter to full page, strategically placed in the news, business, or sports sections, supplement standard obituaries and, I can only surmise, more fully and publicly express the condolences of grief-stricken colleagues for those not as drawn to standard obituary listings as I.

As a self-proclaimed serial obituary reader, I take a peculiar delight in observing the many quirks of death notices. Here are some others. 

Men continue to predecease women regardless of age. How many instances do we see of notices like SMITH-John died peacefully at home at the age of 111? He is survived by his wife, Abigale.

I conduct myself with extreme caution on Saturdays because the Sunday listing of obituaries is bountiful.

Obituaries must be published in a font size that is a fraction of that used in conventional news articles and optimally promotes eyestrain. 

Some individuals preplan their obituaries to convey how successful they were in life, as evidenced by GOLDBERG-Michael of Kings Point, Boca Raton, and East Hampton.

Individuals of stature are rewarded with full-blown articles instead of or in addition to standard obituary listings. Two observations regarding this: First, the criteria by which one earns such an homage is somewhat suspect, and, second, conventional rules of grammar do not apply to the headlines of such tributes, as in “Mary Smith Who Faced Illness With Grace and Style.” This just seems to be an incomplete sentiment.

Memorial notices, a slight variation of conventional obituaries and always listed afterward, are often directed not at grieving friends and family but to the actual decedent, as in SMITH-Jane, “This is the fourth anniversary of your passing and I miss you today as much as always.” Sadly, I have never seen a response or even a hint of gratitude from the dearly departed.

Finally, while it saddens me to learn of the death of someone who has touched my life by simply happening upon it among the obituaries, more unsettling is the shock of learning of my own passing. With a fairly common name, I have, on more than one occasion, discovered it among the listings of the newly departed — a cruel irony for this self-professed serial obituary reader. 

Now about those wedding notices . . .

Steven M. Bernstein is the chief development officer at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and the president of the Southampton Hospital Foundation.