Do obituraries make the man (or woman)?

Have you ever noticed in the newspaper death notices that the dead people pictured are always smiling? I find this encouraging. It suggests that they know something the rest of us do not.

At this time of year, I need some encouragement. With the funereal nature of the weather — periods of gloom with an 80 percent chance of depression — mortality weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, as the poet has written.

(Traditionally, poets have been a gloomy lot. The work doesn’t pay well and they shiver over candles in their freezing garrets, worrying that they won’t have enough money to renew their poetic licenses. It’s little wonder they write poems about death and dying when they are not churning out applications for writer-in-residence programs.) To complement the rain and snow, several events have conspired to make me reflect today on the running sands of life’s hourglass: a tennis-playing buddy from summer vacations passed on recently and likewise the mother of a good friend. The final siren sounded for Myron Cope, the beloved voice of the Steelers.

As if this were not sad enough, a dear colleague at the word factory retired last week. She was the only other Australian-American working here and it is a known fact that when Aussies are in short supply, the scratching and laughing falls off dramatically.

Yes, I understand that retirement is not actual death; in fact, it is the promise of a new life. Still, it is the custom here to make an attempt to commit homicide by sheet cake on the outgoing worker and to deliver a few flattering words in a career requiem.

And one cannot think of the departure of good souls, either to heaven or the Social Security system, and not wonder about yourself. Say not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Say not for whom the cake cuts, it cuts for thee.

What will they say about you and me when our time has come? I find myself driven to the obituary pages to see what they say about other people so that I can be envious in advance.

I have heard it said that some folks read the obituary page just to find out if they are dead. That’s ridiculous! I’ll know I’m dead when my jokes no longer amuse. Come to think of it, hand me that obituary page so I can check.

And what do I see here in last week’s New York Times as among the illustrious dead: “Ben Chapman, 79, ‘Black Lagoon’ Creature.” The obituary has a fine picture of Chapman dressed as the horror movie creature (picture Dick Cheney only with claws and webbed fingers). In a charming detail, it turns out that Chapman was only the creature on land; another actor played the creature in the water.

You’ll really know you are dead and important if you make the Times. To read these obits is to realize that we all better get going to achieve something while we still breathe if we want to be so honored.

Consider the daunting example of “Dorothy Podber, 75, Artist and Trickster.” Her Feb. 19 obituary said she was “probably best known for brandishing a pistol and putting a bullet through the forehead of Marilyn Monroe’s likeness in a stack of Andy Warhol’s paintings.” The philistine in me wonders why she didn’t get a state funeral.

Of course, many fine leaders, scientists and other worthies are also noted. Not everybody has to be a “Steve Gerber, 60, Creator of Howard the Duck” (the Feb. 14 obit described the comic book hero Gerber created as being “utterly disagreeable”).

The thing about obituary headlines is that they provide a frighteningly frank distillation of a whole life. Perhaps the Last Judgment will be like this. Individual sinners will come before the eternal bar of justice to be announced by the archangel with a single headline: “Reg Henry, Scribbler and Public Irritant.”

At this dreadful prospect, I turn to the words of yet another dreary poet to cheer me up: The paths of glory lead but to the grave. It is equally true that the paths of mediocrity and obscurity also lead to the grave. This may not seem too cheery, but my point is that you don’t have to be famous to be a good person and the opinion of obits is not the last word.

If you are loved by children, creatures (not necessarily with webbed fingers), family and friends, if you are loved by the Lord, it matters not that your own lagoon was a backwater. I reckon no description matters except “kind,” although I must say “Public Irritant” has a nice ring to it.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at) For more stories visit