I have always been an addict of etymology – please note that it is not entymology that I crave – and I run to my online etymology dictionary several times a week for a fix. I will see a word, even one that I know and use all the time, and suddenly I must know where it sprang from. There is usually an event surrounding the word that sends me to plumb its origin, as was the case recently.

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. . .

Author: Susan

This post has 4 Comments

  1. Anonymous on July 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Am appreciating your dash, Susan Meissner.

    Mary Kay

    Want to check the etymology of “inedist,” my verification. It must be a real word, no?

  2. Susan Meissner on July 8, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Thanks, Mary Kay! And I think the verification machine presents us with nonwords that are pronounceable because when they first started out asking for them with words like hfgyr9yqw we struggled to type it in the window!

  3. Hope on July 8, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Sue! Thanks so much for giving me something thought provoking to read. I find myself in appreciation of the written word so much, but have thought very little about where the words I spend so much time appreciating came from. Good post, and amazing poem.

  4. Johnd311 on July 1, 2014 at 6:09 am

    Nice post. I study one thing more difficult on completely different blogs everyday. kkfgkccgfbda

Leave a Comment