ELON COLUMN: Ringing in a new year of aging and obits

My friends always remember my birthday, but I seldom remember theirs. I have an excuse — my birthday is New Year’s Day. One of the few positives about Facebook is that I get reminders of friends whose birthdays aren’t on the first day of the year, which is pretty much all of them.

Anthony Hatcher

Each January, news and entertainment media bombard us with stories about rebirth and renewal. A new beginning also involves aging, and apparently many of us aren’t happy about it.

We live in a time of digital filters that alter the mediated visage we present to the world. Skin care products and procedures that purport to make us look younger are as popular as ever. Even George Santos sprang for Botox in his early 30s.

When I was a newspaper reporter, I was taught to get the age of someone I was interviewing: “Frank Johnson, 44, said the forest fire was intense.”

I read obituaries of the famous and not-so-famous to learn how they lived and to see how old they were when they died. Even before I went into journalism in my 20s, reading these life summaries taught me about style, nuance and using quotes judiciously. Some of the best reporters are or were obit writers.

I have written many obits in my career, including one about a popular local businessman in Jacksonville, North Carolina, who died at age 59 when the bed of a dump truck he was working on gave way and crushed him. My editor sent me to talk to the family hours after the incident. I was 30 years old, and God knows I didn’t want to bother these people.

I drove to the man’s construction firm, walked in the front door, and was stopped short by the sight of a semicircle of obviously mourning people standing in the lobby. After introducing myself and offering condolences, one of the deceased man’s coworkers patiently answered my questions instead of throwing me out.

I then asked if he would call the family to see if they would talk to me. He shot me a look I will never forget, then dialed his dead friend’s home. One of the six children — four sons and two daughters — who had lost their father that morning said yes.

When I pulled up to the residence, there were cars all over the yard and a crowd of people inside. The daughters, one of whom was just a year younger than I was, sat me down on the couch between them. As their now widowed mother sat wordless in a recliner nearby, the women lay a photo album in my lap and spoke to me nonstop for 20 minutes about who their father was as they flipped the pages. I borrowed one of the headshots and said goodbye.

I wrote the obit using quotes I had gleaned from my encounters with the man’s friends and family. He was reserved, wise and generous. He threw a pig-picking every Fourth of July and invited nearly everybody he knew. He was a brilliant problem-solver. He loved fixing things, including the dump truck that killed him.

Two days after the obit appeared, I received a letter of thanks from the family. That experience convinced me that this difficult work is worthwhile. I tell my journalism students to whom I assign obit writing, “You’re not writing about a death; you’re writing about a life.”

Perhaps the hardest obit I’ve ever written was for my father. On Jan. 1, 2024, I turned 67, surpassing Dad, a smoker who died from lung and liver cancer three months shy of his own 67th birthday.

This year, I celebrated my birthday by taking a hike and being grateful for good health. As I creep toward 70, I think about Psalm 90:10: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

Mark Twain referred to this as “the Scriptural statute of limitations.” During the bleakest years of the COVID-19 epidemic, life expectancy went down in the United States and is slowly creeping upward again, but it’s still in the three score and ten range.

Some defy the odds. Joe Biden is 81, and so is Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger is 80. All three are currently on tour.
Yet, Jesus died at 33, Anne Frank at 15. Hundreds of thousands around the globe die daily from war, famine, disease, shootings, and natural disasters. Relatively few get a published obit.

John Lennon, who was shot to death at age 40, wrote “War is Over” in 1971 as a protest song against the Vietnam War. The lyrics haven’t gone out of style:

“Another year over
And a new one just begun…
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear…

War is over
If you want it
War is over now.”

Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.

Anthony Hatcher is a professor of journalism at Elon University in Elon.