Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives, by Jim Sheeler. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. 242 pp. $14 (paperback).
It’s a pleasure to read Jim Sheeler writing about the dead.
Consider how Sheeler, an obituary writer for the Denver Post and Boulder Planet newspapers during the 1990s, wrote “After 624 Deaths, One More,” his obit for Carolyn Jaffe. He shines a light on the techniques Jaffe used in her work as a hospice nurse who helped hundreds of patients come to terms with their mortality, and turns up the brightness on the enrichment she derived from her career by using this quote from a book she coauthored:
I know I’ve made the time better. I’ve changed the dying from something that’s feared, something that’s the enemy, to a natural part of life—maybe even a friend. The families tell me this, and I know it without their saying a word. This is powerful; it is beautiful. (p. 208)
In his obituary writing, Sheeler adopts a similarly positive approach to death, conveying the power and beauty of a life well lived. Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives, a compilation of Sheeler’s newspaper work, demonstrates that—whether the subject is a senior whose end was imminent, a heartbroken suicide, or a youth who met an untimely demise—obituaries can and should touch upon the essence of their subjects’ lives; that is, the distinctions and values that fundamentally defined them. Moreover, as Sheeler writes in his introduction and demonstrates in his work, the stories of people who never made the newspapers in life oftentimes hold valuable lessons. His guiding light is to pursue, uncover, and underscore such lessons: “When interviewing friends and relatives, one of the questions I always ask is, ‘What did you learn from this person’s life?’”His subjects are those who, as he puts it, “teach me how to live” (p. ix).
In an obit titled “Life’s Lessons Learned Too Soon,” Sheeler uncovers the values that guided Daniel Seltzer, a fifteen-year-old who died suddenly of complications from a previously undetected heart condition. Sheeler remembers Daniel’s commitment to living a thoughtful, ethical life; his passionate pursuit of knowledge (he learned the alphabet at age two and how to read soon after); and how he later parlayed his love of upgrading and fixing computers into a business. As he writes about Daniel’s life and interests, Sheeler highlights eleven guidelines from the teen’s own “Code of Morals”—among them “Never allow fear to run one’s life,” “Know one’s own limitations,” and “Never allow anger to cloud one’s own judgment”—and uses these as quasi-headlines to segment the obit.
In “Pillows in Granpa’s Tractor,” we learn about Albert “Fritz” Albrandt, who earned the distinction of being named one of the top ten sugar beet farmers in his county. Here, Sheeler focuses on Albrandt’s love for and devotion to his work, which endured into his seventies and was obvious to others. “I remember when a farmer nearby won the lottery of a million dollars,” Sheeler quotes Albrandt’s son, Alan. “Someone asked, ‘Hey, Fritz, what would you do if you won the lottery?’ and he said, ‘I’d probably farm until it was all gone. That might take three or four years’” (p. 201).
The importance that passions play in the lives of his subjects is also evident in Sheeler’s obituary of a black woman named Marian Morrison Robinson. Growing up facing threats from bigots, she carved out a career that centered on a family piano. The obit begins:
Her life played out on the old piano. Eighty-five years in eighty-eight keys.
The Steinway first arrived when the little girl was seven years old, not long after she watched the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in her family’s front yard. A few years later, she saw Duke Ellington and Count Basie sit at the piano stool, where they composed songs with her father.
On the same keys, her tiny hands grew into the lithe, learned fingers of a woman, and eventually into the aged, accomplished hands of a historian, teacher, and leader. (p. 183)
As these lede paragraphs and other examples reveal, Sheeler’s obituaries are distinguished by an unconventional narrative style that breaks from the boilerplate obits made standard by The New York Times and Associated Press. To give one simple stylistic example, whereas The Times’s obits routinely open with the names, defining accomplishments, dates of death, and ages of the deceased, Sheeler may not mention some of these factors until midway through his pieces. “Most of the people in this book will die before the fifth paragraph,” he writes in his introduction (p. vii). The results of Sheeler’s exceptional craftsmanship, far from being simple death notices, are pieces that tend to breathe character, personality, and life into the newly dead.
Sheeler’s ability to pique his readers’ interest with intriguing ledes is bolstered by his artful use of fiction-like foreshadowing and suspense techniques that further hook them. For instance, in “Living With the Risk,” readers eventually come to learn about rock climbers Tom Dunwiddie and Monika Eldridge, a duo so enthusiastic about and skilled in their sport that it took them mere days to scale stretches of granite in Yosemite Park that took many others weeks to climb, but who fell to their deaths. Sheeler foreshadows both their deaths and their passions in his lede sentences: “When rangers from Yosemite National Park found the rolls of film in the car, they hoped to learn something about the bodies at the bottom of Middle Cathedral Rock. When the film was developed, the snapshots dripped with adrenaline” (p. 169).
Similarly, in the second paragraph of “A Lifetime Together; Death Four Days Apart,” Sheeler excerpts from an infatuation-charged letter that John Scordo penned when courting his future wife, Carmella: “I haven’t seen you for the longest time. . . . If you have any boyfriends, drop ’em. If you’re engaged to anyone, break it. Because I’m going to marry you” (p. 28). This quote foreshadows what readers later learn was, as the couple’s son characterized it, “an incredible love story” (p. 29). (As here, Sheeler often gives voice to the dead through their left-behind letters, poems, and, in some cases, suicide notes.)
Adding still more intrigue to his writing, Sheeler displays a suspense novelist’s ability to sustain audience interest by withholding key information about an individual, his life story, or his death until late in the obit. An example of this can be seen in one of Sheeler’s grimmest pieces, “Mr. And Mrs. Marshal,” featuring an elderly couple, Jimmy and Vera Griffith. Through oblique comments and quotes from people who knew them, Sheeler intimates that Jimmy, because he was so deeply in love with Vera, committed suicide four days after she died. Readers will find that they’re eager to learn how he did it, but Sheeler dramatically withholds that particular detail until near the conclusion.
These techniques, although secondary attributes in Sheeler’s obituaries, add color to the portraits he paints of the uncelebrated individuals in Obit, making it an engaging and, as the subtitle accurately advertises, inspiring read.
In the introduction to Obit, Sheeler says that most consider his beat to be the worst in the newsroom and that he’s often asked how he copes with writing sad stories. But he finds the opposite to be true. “For those of us who understand, it’s journalism’s best kept secret—a place of raw emotion and endless wisdom, a place where you find lessons of life more brilliant than anything you’ll ever find from the traditionally designated ‘noteworthy’ people who usually appear in the rest of the newspaper” (p. viii). At least with respect to Sheeler’s writing, readers are likely to agree.