A woman named Susan Meissner died last week. Her obituary ran in the paper of her Southern town and because I have Google Alerts for mentions of my name on the Internet (that’s a story for another time), the link to the notice of her passing landed in my inbox. I probably don’t need to tell you how odd it was to see my name listed in the obituaries of city far from me. My name. But not my life, and definitely not my death. I stopped to whisper a prayer of blessing over the family of this woman who shared my name, and moved on with my day, but she kept coming back to me, reminding me that we are all so very mortal.
Her obituary and her foggy presence on my day sent me to the etymology dictionary. I had to know where the word “obituary” came from. I have written hundreds of obituaries. Ten years as a journalist at a weekly newspaper provided me ample opportunities to become familiar with what an obituary is. But why is it called that? That, I suddenly HAD to know.
It comes from the Latin root word obitus, my friends, which means “departure.” An obituary is a record of your departure. You were here among us, and then Death took you to a different place. You departed. Such a heady thought. And of course, you can guess what I did next. I looked up “depart.” It is a compound word of French origin that means ‘to part from each other.’ de = from and partiere = divide. That is why the beloved dead are called the “dearly departed.” They have been divided from us.
You can’t read an obituary with your name at the top of it without thinking of your own mortality, your own impending departure. We can estimate the day someone will be born. There’s always a due date for the arrival. But for must of us, the due date for our departure is withheld from us. A few will know when it is coming, at least within days or even hours, but the moment of our departure? I would guess very few know that.
I am reminded of a poem by Linda Ellis that was read at my grandfather’s funeral in 2002. I have always loved it. Click on the link to read it. It speaks of the dash in between the date we are born and the date we die. The dash represents the life we lived in between those two dates, between the date we arrive and the date we depart. The dash is us; how we lived between those two moments in time. Not only is it how we lived, it is also how we will be remembered.
Rest in peace, Susan Meissner. I hope your dash was a lovely one. . .