Monday, October 31, 2011

The Provisional Obituary

Prepare Your Own Obituary. Or would you rather let your kids have the last word?
                                                -  (classified ad, New York Review of Books) 

Browsing the NYRB classifieds, as I do assiduously, this advertisement from "ObitWriter" caught my eye. I think it was the parting dig about the chances we might be running in defaulting to our offspring, bequeathing to them the license of our palpable absence to play fast and loose with the nicer points of our biographies. A noble service, providing "pre-need obituaries," and a tempting offer of assistance. But at $100 per hour, it seemed good sense to make the attempt on my own before calling in a hired hand (or pen, as the case may be).

"And when she learned of your. . . shall we say. . . ambidexterity?" 

The obituary writer is one of those hirelings, like a wedding planner, whose services one never imagined on offer to a grateful public until the moment of throwing down one's pen with a horrible oath, overturning the inkwell in the full knowledge that the task has proven beyond one's own meager powers of expression, imagination, foresight, organization, fortitude, execution, management or lasting interest. 

The Wedding Planner

It could be a lucrative profession (one's clientele always oblige by dying), but not so lucrative as the wedding planner's (they generally die but once). Still, a potentially endless field for the harvest, and with a penchant for the nicely turned phrase an erstwhile litterateur (or litterateuse) might realize a tidy noncorporate income.

Not that it would be easy money - writing "pre-need" obituaries, it goes without saying, implies the inevitability of at least one editor, and one for whose affairs it may be necessary to put things nicely, with a certain sensitivity to nuance and to the ambiguities of a life lived perhaps a bit . . . haphazardly. 

And then, once the client is gone to his reward, a new set of editors takes over. "Jones was widely known in local winetasting circles," or "Smith's personally funded researches into statistical probability and return on investment (ROI) made him a legend among the region's casino managers" may not necessarily admit of broad interpretation, so the poor scribe is either required by surviving family members to rewrite it or leave out entirely the very thing which gave the deceased any notoriety. It's a devil of a choice, and phrasing the truth to universal approval can be a torture. (This is, succinctly stated, the Theory of Relativity.)

"Oww-butt Einthein" 

In the interests, then, both of Miguel's household oeconomy and the wish for an accurate encomium upon my translation to a better world, I loosened my pen and inscribed the following "characteristic" or brief - one possible history, however provisional, of an unconcluded life.

Miguel de Montaigne, beloved and widely acclaimed boulevardier, raconteur, flaneur, gougnafier, branleur, homme du monde, jean-foutre and bon vivant was a happy issue of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, being among the first wave of Baby Boomers to wash ashore on the soil of his adopted homeland.

Little Miguel was an energetic and curious lad, displaying early the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurialism by amassing much of his young companions' lunch money, new toys and coveted items of clothing in youthful games of chance and wagers on local pigeon races. He continued on his path as humble wage-earner until his untimely expulsion from "normal" school. A series of such misunderstandings stamped Miguel early as an industrious and self-reliant little fellow.

As a young man, Miguel felt an avocation for theology, and passed several cloistered years as a seminarian. It was understandably a surprise, then, that his discovery by the local gendarmerie occasioned a change of life for the young devotee, who always maintained, as he put it so aptly, that he had "merely entered a secular cloister for a time." This intervention by the local authorities in these youthful ventures first raised in Miguel his suspicion of government and a lifelong scorn of the bureaucratic.

The nature of these fledgling entreprenurial beginnings, coupled with his familiarity with legal procedure and his general want of formal education, suited him for a life of public service in elected office, for a seat on the stock exchange, or for a life of leisure. He chose the latter, little imagining that his paucity of resources would require certain compromises in his dearest principles. 

He was lucky in love and in all sired thirteen children, who mourn his passing. He was a loving father and a faithful husband on several fronts in what he called "la guerre d'amour." He always expressed in private his regret that, the laws and customs being as they are, his various families could never meet. Still, as he always said, "je regrette rien." His epitaph reads, "Beautiful girls, walk a little slower when you walk by me."

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