History in the Obituaries

Susan Vaughan here.
Some people may feel that unless you know someone who has recently passed away, browsing the sunsetobituaries in the local newspapers (yes, print media!) is morbid. But I find I can learn a lot about history and people’s lives in the obits. Yes, the obituaries of famous people may catch many people’s attention, but often the stories of ordinary people’s lives, their work history, their contributions to their communities and to the country are more revealing of our past—and often colorful.

Obituaries often reveal something about the departed by their nicknames, such as Hopper, Bunty, Leaky Boot, Lone Wolf, and Ducky. Too bad the obits don’t usually explain the origins of these. I’m especially drawn to obituaries of people who’ve lived a very long time. Memorial Day 2015 is behind us, but the obituaries of those who experienced World War II either by serving in the military or by supporting the troops are in the newspaper every day. Here are snippets from the obituaries of four people, and I hope if anyone recognizes them, they’ll understand that my sharing is with respect and appreciation for lives well lived.

The life of M.H., who lived to be 97, is a snapshot of history and a woman’s independence. In 1936, she traveled to Europe on the maiden voyage of the French Line’s S/S Normandie, which was then the world’s largest passenger vessel. Two years later, she completed a commercial design program, which led to an art career. Marriage and four children didn’t slow her down. She participated in the “Bundles for Britain” program and, while her husband served in WWII, worked in a Western Union office in Manhattan. Later, when the family moved to Maine, she worked as a draftsperson for the state and continued taking art courses and organizing them for others until 2003.

Then there’s R.B., who passed away at 92. Immediately after high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a pilot during WWII. This obit caught my eye because my father was also a pilot then in the Army Air Corps, which would later become the U.S. Air Force. My father was luckier than R.B., whose bomber was shot down over Belgium. Members of the Resistance hid him, but he was later captured by the Germans and held prisoner until his Stalag was liberated in 1945. Later, R.B. married his high-school sweetheart, completed university and graduate degrees, taught for many years, and owned a charter boat and a campground.

The photo of V.V. in her WAC (Woman’s Army Corps) uniform drew me to her obituary. This woman was apparently never still. Following high school, she completed a commerce course and a Certified Nursing Assistant course, and then joined the WACs, serving during WWII. After marriage and children, she again served as a nurse until retirement.

lilyI sometimes run across Maine “characters” in the obituaries, such as D.M. Another military veteran, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps, but after WWII. In the obit, friends describe him as a born wit and raconteur, but also a man who liked to escape civilization by camping, fishing, and hunting. He was a registered Maine Guide with encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world and local lore.
If anyone has further insights into what we can learn from obituaries, please share.
On Deadly Ground is now available at most online retailers. Ring of Truth, still only on Amazon (http://amzn.to/13RNhQv). More information about my books is at http://www.susanvaughan.com.

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6 Responses to History in the Obituaries

  1. Prentiss Garner says:

    I am so glad to hear that someone else reads obituaries for the same reason I do..
    They are a little slice of history and sometimes provide a glimpse of surprising connections that you would necer gave thought about.

  2. Susan, I share your appreciation for obituaries and thank you for posting summaries of these four lives here on MCW. Such accomplished folks cannot be honored too much.

    When I wrote obits as as a young journalist I thought of the task as writing little feature stories. If I was patient, family members and friends would open up and tell stories about the person, and sometimes I’d even find out the story behind the sweet nicknames. Now that I’m writing fiction I sometimes clip a particularly interesting obit and put it in my inspiration file, and a few people have come back to life, in part, through my characters.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Ah! The secret is out. Authors who read obituaries … makes all the sense in the world. Thank s for sharing, Susan! Lea – a fellow fan of the obituaries

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