Deachman: A decade of death notices, an anthropological snapshot

Donna Sharkey, according to the obituary that closes her latest book, “loved people, stories and stories about people. She was an observant reader of obituaries, and at one point, she wrote about them.”

It’s about as brief and narrowly focused an obit as you could imagine, although I suppose there’s still time to amend or enlarge it, for Donna Sharkey is also still very much alive — or at least she was when I wrote this.

And assuming her status remains unchanged through the weekend, you can meet her on Sunday at, appropriately, Beechwood Cemetery, where she’ll be launching her new book, A Death in the Family: Stories Obituaries Tell. The book, her fourth with Demeter Press, is the result of the decade she spent poring over the death notices published in the Ottawa Citizen, in what Sharkey describes as “an anthropologist’s playground.”

I confess to having more than a passing kinship with the subject. Obituaries are among my favourite stories to write: the challenge of summing up a life well or poorly lived and capturing someone’s essence in fewer than 1,000 words is one I immensely enjoy, and something I feel is important to maintain our connection with one another. It also may be the last, and sometimes only, thing written about that person, lending some gravitas (though not necessarily solemnity) to the exercise. That said, I developed a close relationship with death notices long before becoming a journalist. (As an aside, the nomenclature of such announcements bears clarifying.

The paid notifications that you and I place in the paper to let others know our loved ones have died are known as death notices, whereas the tributes and profiles written largely by journalists doing independent research are referred to as obituaries.) Years ago, I would read death notices aloud to my partner, and she would try to guess the person’s age. Sometimes I would only reveal the person’s name; there are precious few 20-year-olds named Gladys these days, and perhaps fewer octogenarians named Brittany.

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