My Dad and his brother Franny are part of a generation, or maybe just a neighborhood, that is all about honor. Doing the right thing when no one is watching and paying respect are lost arts these days, but it’s part of how they grew up in South Boston in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s certainly a message that my Dad communicated to me and my sisters as we were raised, and it’s something I hope to pass on to my own kids, even though I haven’t quite mastered it myself.
It’s a philosophy that is very evident in my Uncle Franny’s daily practice of reading the Boston Globe obituaries. He scans for names of people he knew while growing up in Southie, in the Boston neighborhoods in which he worked, and during the many years since living in Stoughton, a block away from my Dad. I can’t imagine the number of wakes and funerals that they have attended over the years; to them, it’s an absolutely critical thing to pay your respects, even if the drive is really far or they haven’t seen the guy in decades. You go because it’s the right thing. And as my Dad loves to quote Yogi Berra, “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
When my Uncle Franny started having trouble with his eyesight, the obligation to scan the obituaries remained. Sometimes my Dad will drive over and read them aloud, sometimes his daughter, Ellie, will call while on a break in her teaching day, sometimes his grandson, Patrick, will do it while home from college. I find it a truly remarkable thing that reading about the dead is, in a weird way, a connection to life for my uncle. With the physical limitations of age, and now a serious vision problem, Franny’s world has gotten smaller. But this overarching sense of respect for the past and those he’s known before has led him to connect with his people during the course of each day. It’s kind of awesome how the dead are leading him to life. The word ‘obituary’ is derived from the Latin, ‘obitus’, which means ‘a going to meet, an encounter’. That’s exactly what the Globe obituaries are giving Franny, encounters with other people.
My Dad told me the story of his father, who would read the Boston Globe with fury during the Boston busing crisis in the 1970s. It was a time of stark division in Boston, and the Globe’s take on the issue was very far from my grandfather’s view, to say the least. His wife told him he needed to stop reading the Globe’s coverage, that she feared it would make him so angry he might have a heart attack. He agreed, but then walked into work one day with everyone wondering why he ‘missed Sully’s wake’. Without the Globe obituary, he had had no idea of the death, and that was unacceptable to him. He started reading the Globe again that day; it was worth it to him to do the right thing in the end.
Death can lead us to life in so many ways. Death of a loved one can, eventually, make us softer, more empathetic…it can lead us to faith or make us want to live better lives. I’m not sure my uncle would say those things about himself, he might just laugh, but there’s no doubt that the practice of reading the obituaries continues to connect him daily to the people he loves the most and the values with which he was raised, way back in those Southie days when people did the right thing, whether anyone saw it, or not.