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    Finding My Story in the Obituaries

    Howard Stieremann (2)Most people smile when I mention that I officiate weddings, but seem a tad surprised when I mention that I also lead funerals.

    Obituaries, death notices, life tributes: whatever you want to call them, I read them, but not the sensationalized hyper-colored stories of celebrities. I’ve always said that I’d make a great juror in any celebrity case, as I don’t follow stories such as OJ’s Jeep or Caitlyn’s SUV travails. I do, however, read the facts found in the obituaries of everyday people. It is fascinating to see which items are included in a person’s life story. Death notices are billed by the word, so what is included may say as much about how a person was viewed by their survivors as it does about the deceased.

    The life story told by an obituary is curated, like an interior designer selects limited items to display. I suppose I enjoy the voyeuristic element of being invited into a stranger’s life. I become privy to place and year of birth, family of origin and choice, schools, work, travels–whichever biographic data is shared, I relish.

    In learning about other lives, perhaps I’m trying to find my story reflected in the lives of others. Perhaps I am comparing my life to the deceased. Did they live longer or shorter than my current age? Was their life seemingly easier or more difficult? Perhaps I am using obituaries akin to tarot cards, attempting to prophesize where my life could be headed.

    I am captivated with lives lived very differently than mine, such as people born in exotic cultures (compared to my Midwestern, suburban upbringing), or people who served military careers, or those who lived their lives with abandon. These stories allow me to be an armchair traveler to places I know I’ll never experience.

    Sometimes I need to read between the lines to suss out similarities. If there’s no mention of a spouse and children, I wonder whether the deceased might have been gay or lesbian.

    The obituaries that set my imagination at hyper-speed, however, are those that reflect parts of my life experiences. It is easier for me to fill in the dash between the deceased’s birth and death dates if they lived a life familiar to my own. I grew up imbued with my parents’ experiences as Jews in Nazi Germany. The obituaries of other Holocaust survivors make me sad that another witness to that horror has died. At the same time, reading those obituaries allows me to feel less isolated. My family’s upheaval is smoothed ever so slightly, knowing that another Bay Area resident’s story, which began in war-torn Europe, was put to rest here in my community.

    And for people whose life stories, or age, come close to mine, I suppose there’s an element of “There but for the Grace of God go I.” Reading obituaries reminds me of the finality of death (like I really need a reminder). I rarely become depressed confronted with death. It spurs me to focus on my blessings. Reading about a life that has ended reminds me that mine continues and prods me to be productive. Even if I were to live to 120, I recognize that life is short. I need to do what I want to do while I still have the time and ability to do it. I’m not referring to a bucket list. For me, buckets are utilitarian containers. I don’t view my thoughts and plans about my future as contained, but limited only by my dreams and aspirations.

    Over the years I have taken to heart Franz Kafka’s line: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” Obituaries are daily reminders that life does indeed stop. It is my desire to live, and not simply to exist.

    After reading any obituary I say quietly to myself, “May their memory be for a blessing.” If an obituary gets me thinking about my dad, Doug Shorenstein, Chuck Williams or anyone else who was part of my life but has died, I am thankful for being blessed with memories. Recalling memories are the gift reading about others’ lives gives me.

    Howard M. Steiermann is an Ordained Ritual Facilitator based in San Francisco. For more information, please visit