Part of the role of cultural heritage professionals is to be safe-keepers of the stories of individuals. Where we once focused on the lives of the well-known, we have now know for a long time that it is the collections of the "common man" that reveal some of the most important aspects of our society. This idea was highlighted again for me this morning while listening to a podcast from NPR's On the Media, I learned that obituary writers re-create the lives of individuals by discovering small moments in a person's life and stringing together a narrative from them. If one believes in the importance of the human story for safekeeping our heritage, one must certainly see parallels in the work of the obituary writer and the work of the archivist.
Before listening to this audio, I did not understand that a good, classic, obituary writer researches people to create an intriguing narrative. Beginning at 34:50 in the podcast (to which I've linked above) is an interview with a reporter who discusses his craft. His goals when writing an obituary are intriguing: "...How can I tell the readers why this life was important? What did you learn from this life? What can I learn from this life?"
I was particularly struck by the reporters use of objects to dig up his story. He explains this first by recounting an experience. He describes meeting a widow who told him that, when her husband first went away to boot camp, she took up knitting. The reporter asked to see some of the things she had knit. "She took out this baby blanket and she told me its story, which was the night before Jim left for Iraq he knew he wouldn't be back in time to see the baby born. So, he slept with that baby blanket because he said that when the child was born he wanted the child to know how his father smelled." The reporter used that for the opening line of his story the next day - "The soft blue green baby blanket still smells like second lieutenant James J. Catthey..." I believe that those of us who work with objects every day can feel the power of that line and relate it to at least some of the collections we have handled.
In the next piece of the podcast, the reporter uses the example of a shoe shine man to further explain how he reconstructs a life through objects. He recounts the research behind a story about this person who left behind no family when he died. The man's objects were kept in a box in a public administrator's office. From these objects, additional research, and the writing they launched, the author recounts he life of this well-liked man who made an impact on the people he met. His legacy was sealed by his obituary. Without it, with no grave marking his burial, he would have been forgotten. The loneliness and special nature of the small collection, upon which the small biography of the deceased was built, immediately impressed me and I envisioned a row of archival boxes in a repository with similar stories to tell.
I now understand why some find obituaries so intriguing. To be truthful, I subscribed to the widespread joke that older people read the obituaries "to make sure they are not among them." Of course, I also know of the indispensable role they play for the genealogist. But now, I appreciate that good obituary writers can publicize an individual's impact in this world so we learn and remember that everyone is part of a larger community and a bigger story. How well the profession of obituary writers and archivists fit.