I started my newspaper career writing obituaries for a local daily.
For about a year, most of my work days were spent gathering information from funeral homes: date of birth, date of death, cause of death, profession, affiliations, surviving family members, as well as the time, date and location of the funeral. Once that was done, I’d call the family to fact-check everything, and to get some personal anecdotes about their loved one.
There were some days I wrote up to 10 obituaries.
I learned a lot (and earned a little) that year; chief among the lessons of the job was just how extraordinary “ordinary” people can be. Individuals whose worlds were virtually untouched by fame or power or wealth exhibited remarkable bravery — amid war, illness and another hardships — and found ways, small and large, to change lives for the better.
That is also a prevailing message of The New York Times’ just-published interactive package, “The Lives They Loved.” It’s a companion to paper’s annual end-of-year magazine feature “The Lives They Lived,” featuring reported and well-edited stories about prominent people who died over the past 12 months; there are write-ups on Nelson Mandela, Doris Lessing, David Frost and James Gandolfini, among others.
For “The Lives They Loved,” The York Times invited readers to send in photos and short stories about their loved ones who died during the past year — and in doing so seeks out the remarkable in every life.
Among those featured is “Steven J.” (b. circa 1954), who “overcame a 25-year addiction and now walked with alcoholics through their own recovery,” according one man he had helped.
And Dillard Proctor (b. 1921), who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, before going on to become “an original builder of the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland,” his granddaughter wrote in.
And George Takao Yamamoto (b. 1934), who worked long, hard days on his family’s strawberry farm and, according to his daughter, “had a way of … touching everyone with his optimism, his joy, his compassion.”
And Celeste Kingston (b. 1975), who was driven by the desire to “make [her] Caribbean immigrant parents proud.” Her longtime friend wrote in: “While we remained cynical New Yorkers, she was a ray of sunshine who matched our suspicion with hope.”
These thoughtful, plainspoken vignettes, are reminiscent of the “Portraits of Grief” feature The Times ran after 9/11. I’d encourage you to read through all of the 100-plus “Lives They Loved” stories. Be sure to have tissues on hand. And if you lost a loved one in 2013, there’s still time to send in photo and story; here’s how.