[4 October 2007]
He may as well have thrown in a slice of apple pie and a John Deere tractor—Jim Sheeler’s Obit: Inspiring Stores of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives is about as American as baseball. His characters exude a down-home goodness that only the midwest has come to know and love, eschewing corporate jobs and urban lifestyles in favor of small towns and agriculture. To the modern, career-driven American, these “ordinary” people may not seem to have much to offer, though Sheeler somehow manages to convince even the most die-hard city-dweller that there is something of great worth in these pages.
But looking at Sheeler’s previous work, this is not surprising. He began his obituary career in Boulder, Colorado, and has since worked his way up to the Obituary Writer’s Hall of Fame, earning him the obscure title of “obituary expert” (in my book, at least). He has contributed to Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers, and has also under his belt a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a story that has its primary focus on (you guessed it) death.
To say that Sheeler is morbid would be inaccurate. He is, by contrast, obsessed with life.
Each story in Obit is a miniature biography, focusing on achievements rather than on the gory details of death. Only in the last few lines does Sheeler give away each person’s final moments, which by then are so rich with life that it is hard to believe that they are really dead.
And this is exactly Sheeler’s intention: to personify what most of us just see as words on a page. He turns a three-line obituary into a short story, carefully developing each character as would any good novelist, filling the pages with dialogue and rosy-hued memories from friends, family, and acquaintances.
The point is hammered home even further by the modest occupations and lifestyles of the people Sheeler chose to write about in Obit. To document the life of a celebrity or famous philanthropist is one thing—to tell the tale of “Magician Bob Damon”, who, up until the age of 90, made hundreds of people laugh with his tricks, is another. Or to recount the story of Jimmy and Vera Griffith, a couple who had the kind of love that most people can only dream about—up until Vera’s death at age 84, after which Jimmy, also 84, committed suicide.
“I’m sorry to do this to you,” he wrote in his suicide note to his stepdaughter and her husband, “but I just can’t live without Vera.”
Other stories stand out because of the sheer impact that person had on their community. Carolyn Jaffe was a nurse who cared for terminally ill patients, and throughout her lifetime, saw 624 people die under her care. Her death at age 76 was, as her daughter put it, “the most natural thing in the world.”
“As she was taking her last breaths, I got up next to her and breathed in the air as she breathed it out … it was a lovely goodbye.”
Yet for all its touching moments and nostalgic recollections, Obit is quite heavy-handed with its emphasis on the ordinary. After 42 stories, each Colorado denizen seems to have the same sort of life, either revolving around agriculture, a mine, or a bar, with a couple of engineers and typesetters thrown in for variety. It becomes repetitive, as you begin to suspect that some of the characters must have known one another, or at least frequented the same diners in the same small towns.
But in a book with such good intentions, I can hardly blame Sheeler for telling the same story several times over. It forces us to question how well we are able to recognize and appreciate the mundane aspects of life that we so often take for granted; what every grandmother touts as “traditional family values.” There are only 42 stories here—imagine the countless other so-called “ordinary” people whose deaths we’ll never read about.
It puts life into scope, to say the least. Sheeler artfully builds each character up to a figure that we can all identify with, or at least recognize; grandmothers, little brothers, teachers, that wacky homeless man who lives under the eaves of the library. There is an underlying sense that Sheeler is sometimes purposely holding back on some of the emotion that is associated with these people, if only in order to prevent the story from reeling out of control.
“I’ve been invited into homes on Colorado’s eastern plains to share homemade ham sandwiches and fresh-picked heirloom tomatoes,” he writes in the “Acknowledgments”. “I’ve sat at the piano of a respected teacher and felt middle C worn thin by hundreds of tiny fingers. I’ve stared at my notebook countless times as the stranger across the table worked through another good cry … Believe me, I’ve learned something from you all.”
It is details like this that render Obit into a genre-crossing type of book—not quite a biography, not quite a collection of obituaries. It is almost an anthology of short stories in which each character, coincidentally, dies at the end. Putting an obituary into print like this is a genius way of bringing that section in tiny font at the back of every newspaper to life.
And while it is not revolutionary to write about dead people—there is something morbidly fascinating about death that will always make for readable text—it is quite a novel idea to bring them into such public light. In a way, Obit is the common man’s answer to weekly tabloids and over-hyped pop culture media, who monitor the movements of celebrities with tasteless precision.
Sheeler’s quest to find something extraordinary within each person featured in Obit is noble, and delivers such a heart-warming punch line as would make Oprah proud. But like most things in life, obituary-writing is not without personal benefit. In the “Introduction”, Sheeler gives away what keeps him writing.
“For me, the answer is simple: these people teach me how to live.”