One of the first things I read in the daily paper is the obituary page. When I do that, I often recall the New Yorker cartoon of an aging man reading obits at breakfast, ticking them off to his wife. "Older than me; younger than me; older than me; younger than me." The obits are reminders of our own mortality and self-centeredly we old folks read them faithfully.
Recently, however, I did something else. I didn't just read the obits, I wrote my own. I also wrote an obituary for my wife. It was a sobering but enlightening exercise. Why did I do it? There were lots of reasons.
My wife and I are aging with significant health issues. I wanted to make it easier for my son who will have to deal with all this and more when we go back into the Mystery of God from which we came.
My son does not know, for example, the cities or towns where our surviving relatives live. And he won't know all the many different things we did in our long and varied lives.
The obituaries, of course, are incomplete and subject to change. There are lots of blanks to be filled in. I am not clairvoyant and don't know the details. Exactly when will we die? Who will be with us "at the hour of our death?" Family ? Friends? Will we be alone? How will we die? At home? In a hospital? In an accident? My son will have to fill in the blanks, but at least I have provided him with a decent start.
Some might judge otherwise, but writing these obits was not a morbid undertaking. It made me think as much about life as about death. As I wrote them it made me proud that my wife and I had worked for peace and for justice, for the poor and for the needy. We had done some things right.
Writing them also forced me to research old resumes for dates and titles. In retrospect the job promotions, the political infighting, the controversies did not seem important. Certainly they were less important than the parenting of our children.
Looking back, of course, there were mistakes (we certainly could have handled our daughter's adolescent rebellion better). Not that I was overwhelmed with regrets. As parents we did the best we could and we did all right, but writing the obits made me see more clearly the competing values of home and family versus work and politics. I hope I have been able to share the priority of home over work in my newspaper columns. My readers can be the judge of that.
Additionally, writing my obituary brought a subtle temptation to pride. I hope I resisted this, even though smugly I saw the obituary as an opportunity to literally have the last word.
Moreover, the writing made me think of death - and the insightful prayer of that scientist priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Listen to his prayer.
"When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the illness that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; and when the painful moment comes to which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am growing ill or growing old; and above all at the last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown force that has formed me; in all these dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is You (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself."
I'm glad I wrote those obituaries. Try writing your own. I recommend it.
Daniel O'Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His column appears on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, "The Living Spirit" is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website