Commemorating deaths

Unlike some of my friends, I am not a reader of obituaries. Both my parents and all of my siblings are still alive, so I have not had to prepare an obituary for someone close to me. Occasionally, I ponder my own inevitable demise and consider what kind of obituary I would like to have written about me. This usually leads me to the thought that I should write my own, just to be sure I like what it says, although I have not actually sat down and done so – yet.

To have an obituary written by the New York Times would be, for many people in Europe and North America, the ultimate post-death achievement. However, only a select few of the world’s dead — approximately three of the 155,000 people who die each day – are accorded such an honour.

The New York Times has been writing obituaries since 1851 and, over that time, has commemorated the deaths of thousands of people. Some have achieved great things; others (the man who named the Slinky, for instance) not so much. Undeniable is that white men have been heavily represented in the obituary section of the NYT. Notably missing have been women and people from other marginalized communities. Think of writers like Charlotte Bronte and Sylvia Plath, photographers like Diane Arbus or women like Emily Warren Roebling, who oversaw the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, none of whom were honoured with a NYT obituary.

Overlooked no more

In 2017, Amisha Padnani at the NYT noted the absence of obituaries for women as well as for people of colour and from other marginalized communities, and set to right the wrong. Her work led to the launching of “Overlooked” in 2018, which is a weekly feature in the obituaries section of the paper in which the lives of some of those previously overlooked are commemorated.  Readers can use an online form to nominate a candidate for inclusion in the ongoing feature.

Obituaries editor, William McDonald, wrote when introducing the new feature:

“We focus on people who made a difference on a large scale . . . .But achievement may also speak softly.”

A quick perusal of some of the obituaries that have appeared in Overlooked proves his assessment correct.

Who’s been missing?

Even after only a few months, Overlooked has written the stories of too many women to share here. I am going to mention just two.

Emma Gatewood, 1887 – 1973, was battered terribly and repeatedly by her husband. Often, she would run into the woods to hide from him, which may be where her affinity with the natural world began. She eventually divorced him, a rare thing for a woman of her time. When she was 67 years old, she told her adult children (she had 11 kids) that she was going for a walk. Her walk turned into a hike of the full 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail. She was the first woman to accomplish this and eventually walked it two more times.

Fannie Farmer, 1857- 1915, had a stroke when she was 16 that left her partially paralyzed. Nonetheless, she attended the Boston Cooking School, after which her work introduced a scientific approach to cooking that included the use of accurate measurements, precise temperatures and detailed instructions. She became the foremost cooking teacher, writer and lecturer of her time. In 1896, she wrote The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, later republished as The Fanny Farmer Cookbook.

It was one of the first cookbooks I bought when I knew nothing whatsoever about how to cook, and it stood me in good stead for decades, even as my cooking skills increased and I moved beyond the basics.

Obituaries are only part of the story

Overlooked creates the opportunity for us to learn about people previously excluded from attention merely because they were not white men, and that is a good thing.

But it is important to also remember the importance of those whose lives will never be commemorated in the NYT. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch: 

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the numbers who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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