What the obituary page says about us.
Few lives can be condensed to a half dozen paragraphs. Yet that is exactly what the obituary writer must do everyday. For years I wrote death notices for a small rural newspaper. The vast majority of these departures failed to make headlines. Even in small towns, the front page is reserved for tragic farm and highway accidents and the passings of important community leaders.
The latter are not always easy to distinguish. Among the generation now heading for the exits the vast majority were deeply involved in their communities. They were of a generation known for putting God first, family second, community third, and themselves somewhere way down the list.
They were joiners long before it became fashionable to pad one’s résumé volunteering for liberal causes. Nearly all had proudly served their country, even when the reasons they were fighting were not always clear. When they returned home they continued to serve, joining the American Legion and the VFW Post. Many were members of at least one fraternal organization (Elks, Eagles, Moose, Masons, Rotary, Jaycees, Optimists, Odd Fellows, Lions, Knights of Columbus), to say nothing of the fire protection district and the electric coop. They served as village trustees and founding members of the county public water district. They were part of their communities in a way that today’s peripatetic suburbanites can never be.
Because they played an important role in their churches and their communities, they behaved themselves. A man’s reputation and self-image mattered, nor was it damaged because he sometimes donned a fez and drove a minicar. Shame was still a powerful check on one’s morals. At the local level at least, society ran smoothly and the country prospered.
The world changed greatly during their lifetime, though not always for the better. Perhaps the biggest transformation came in the size of government. In their father’s day, a man’s only contact with the federal government was the post office and, after 1913, the tax form. But Washington would not be denied a larger role in their lives, and wooed them with instantly addictive middle-class entitlements the likes of farm subsidies, corporate welfare, government loans, unemployment insurance, social security, Medicare, and now ObamaCare. As we have become more dependent on government, society has run less smoothly, the country is less prosperous.
THEIR OBITUARIES are characteristically brief because even in death they are dignified, modest, and not prone to talk about themselves. Their stories celebrate the simple pleasures of life:
“He enjoyed woodworking, making coaster wagons, plant stands, birdhouses and stained glass stepping stones.”
“He enjoyed fishing, hunting, gardening and his dogs.”
The women were active with their church groups. They were the ladies who cooked the meals you ate in the church basement after the funeral of a loved one. They enjoyed their grandchildren and playing cards and cross-stitching and making blocks for quilts. They were excellent pie and cookie bakers. Is there a better way to be remembered?
They were in the main hard workers. One did bookkeeping for the local Buick dealer. Another worked at the box company, and helped her husband with the dairy and grain farm.
They represent an older, traditional America, one whose critics dismiss as a nostalgic, rose-colored Neverland, whose underbelly seethed with racism, sexism and fundamentalism. “Groups often reflect society’s divisions,” noted pundit Robert Samuelson. “Many old social groups reflected prejudice,” wrote the novelist William Kennedy. One would think we were talking about the Klan and not the Elks.
These are the same Americans Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken once ridiculed as the booboisie, the great mass of Babbits and boosters. One wonders if Lewis were alive today if he wouldn’t long for the Babbits and the Carol Milfords, who were, relatively speaking, harmless, decent folk?
The men and women who look out from today’s obituary pages did not feel they were suffocating in small town America. They felt rooted here, but in a good way. Because few went away to college (even with the GI bill), it was not necessary to leave and find work in the cities and the suburbs. Only a few misfits and malcontents left home to find themselves, but they nearly all returned to retire after getting their fill of the chaotic cities and the loneliness of the Commutervilles.
The critics are right about one thing. They were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But when I consider my own generation, which too often shuns the responsibilities of marriage, family, and community service, while seeming only to care about a shallow hedonism, I am left to wonder how we will get by without them.
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