Obituaries, Reunions and Alumni Magazines

As parents are sending their students off to school these days, many might also be preparing for their own high school and college reunions this fall. They are happy times to reunite, remember, celebrate old friendships and forge new ones.

On a more sobering note, it is also a time to find out who is missing, who is lost and who has died.

Last spring, I participated in my high school reunion – The Westminster Schools’ Class of ’64 – and was very engaged in the planning and production of a book of bios for as many class members as we could entice to participate. With a hard-working committee, we were able to track down 140 of 152 living classmates and actually received bio material – in answer to a questionnaire sent out – from 124 of them.

During the actual reunion events, we found there was intense interest in the dozen classmates who had died. What happened to them after we parted ways decades ago? How old were they at death? How did they die? What was their life like: Career? Family? Children?

It is common practice for alumni books to include an In Memoriam section which will list classmates’ dates of death. But most do not include more detail than that.

It seems that baby boomers, in particular, are hungry for more information – we seem to always subconsciously maybe, compare our age and state of health to obituaries we read, especially if we know the deceased.

Our class did pull more detail from as many obituaries as we could find to provide a more complete picture and life story of the deceased. In some cases, we called surviving family members or classmates who had been close to round out the detail. The short entries ran alongside the classmates’ senior year photos.

Just this week, a good friend posted a blog on my Facebook page written by someone who’s been editing obits for her alumni yearbook for a couple of years. In “10 Things I Learned from Editing Obituaries for Two Years,” Elissa Lerner captured some of the same things I have found to be true, too:

  • There’s a turning point in every stack of obituaries when the ages of the deceased start to get significantly younger…When the age of the deceased start creeping toward the age of your own parents, things start getting weird. [Author’s note: Even weirder when they start creeping toward your own age!]
  • Cancer is real: …It’s striking how many of these younger obituaries are due to “a brave battle with cancer.”
  • We are more than our jobs…Due to space and style constraints, we couldn’t publish a whole lot about all of our alumni. Word counts are harsh mistresses, so we tended to focus on professional accomplishments and achievements.
  • Consider your legacy. A beloved professor died last year and did not leave any family as survivors. He did leave behind the 30,000 students who had taken his Intro to Chemistry class.

 

I am now engaged in editing In Memoriam pages for a rival high school here in Atlanta and remember some of the deceased as I have called family members and friends to gather more detail about their lives. Some are forthcoming with highlights and low points, funny stories and sad endings. Some, even years after losing a dad or husband, are hesitant – despite the intent to include those who cannot be at the reunion.

But it’s important to honor those who have departed before us, to remember their younger selves, their achievements, survivors and lives as the rest of us also hope to be remembered one day.

Obit writer and journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University Jim Sheeler was quoted in Charlotte Magazine in North Carolina this month as saying, “One of the reasons I think people read obituaries is to learn something from this life that maybe we can add to our own. Something that stays for you. It’s a chance for them to still teach you.”

***

Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.

Image via the author

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