A couple months ago I started regularly checking the obituaries in the online version of my hometown newspaper, the Topeka Capital Journal.
I don’t remember exactly where I got the idea to do this, but it was probably either from The Daily Stoic newsletter (“Memento Mori!”) or Austin Kleon’s weekly newsletter. (ok, I looked it up and it was definitely this article from the Daily Stoic, but I highly recommend subscribing and reading Austin’s newsletter as well.)
The goal of this exercise was to regularly remind myself of my mortality and to hopefully spur myself on to more industriousness (not my strongest trait) and success.
In all honesty, I hadn’t gotten much out of the exercise. I didn’t do it every day, but was doing it at least a couple times a week, whenever the bookmark in my Firefox bookmark bar caught my eye.
That changed this morning in a big way.
When I scanned my bookmark bar this morning and “Obituaries in Topeka…” caught my eye I was reminded that I hadn’t checked them in a few days. To my credit, every time this sequence of events occurs I do take the time to click the link and scroll through a page or two of the listings. Despite my repeated failure to be inspired, today was no exception and I dutifully clicked and began skimming.
While I hadn’t yet received any extra motivation or inspiration from this exercise, I had noticed a couple of things that I found interesting.
The first was that often the obituary does not list the exact age of the person upon their death, but it almost always lists their birthday. Notice in the photo that neither David nor Douglas’ age are listed like Bonnie’s is, but their exact birth date is listed not just in the full obituary but in the first paragraph, ensuring it will show in the excerpt that appears in the list. I’m not exactly sure of the reason for this, maybe it’s to prevent those who lack rudimentary arithmetic skills knowing the person’s actual age?
The second thing I noticed was that quite often the photo of the deceased is an older photo of them from when they were much younger. As I scroll through the list scanning the names and photos I would frequently think “wow, they look young, I wonder what they died from?”. Then I would see their birth year in the excerpt and realize that “oh, they were actually 74 (or 86, or 92, or…)”. David’s photo in the screenshot is a good example of this, he was actually 76 when he died, but his photo looks to me like it was taken when he was in his 30’s maybe. Reading his full obituary the reason for his is fairly obvious: His law enforcement career was a major part of his life and probably a key part of his identity. From my vast two months of experience reviewing these I’ve found that other than veteran military and law enforcement individuals you can rarely tell much about those people who are represented by younger photos of themselves. I guess either the person themself or those who are making the arrangements want to show their loved one as they remember them. If I was emaciated by cancer, or suffering from dementia, or died from another debilitating disease I would probably not want a photo of me in that state being presented to the world either. On the other hand, if I died from a heart attack while while attempting to ride my 3rd (or more) Biking Across Kansas tour I would hope the photo that would be chosen for me would be a selfie found on my phone from that journey, and not something like one of my high school senior photos.
I digress in the details a bit, but these observations and thoughts were key to my experience today when the photo of Douglas Ray Johnson began to scroll it’s way up my screen and caused me to immediately stop to find out more.
Although I didn’t know Mr. Johnson personally, the obituary refers to him as “Doug” and that is what I’m going to call him for the remainder of this article.
When I saw Doug’s photo, even before reading any more about him, I had a visceral reaction that I wanted to be like this guy! Doug was 72 when he died in September 2021, just a couple of weeks before his 73rd birthday. I don’t know how old he is in his featured photo here, or whether it was taken before or after his diagnosis with the pancreatic cancer that killed him, but in this photo he looks to be in his 60’s or 70’s, active and fit. While it’s hard to tell for sure because of the shadow on his face and the low resolution of the photo, he looks like he has at least a little bit of a grin in his expression here, and my belief is that he was happy in this moment of hiking or backpacking, doing something that he loved to do.
Another reason Doug’s photo struck me was the contrast between it and those immediately surrounding his. Bonnie and David were probably both lovely people I’m sure. Bonnie’s photo looks like it might have been a little old, but not too far off of her age of 87 when she passed, but I know nothing about her. The photographer in me sees a solid, well-lit portrait, but it is generic, and as someone who didn’t know her, I am not inspired to find out more beyond reading the excerpt, but I felt obligated to by using her as an example in this article.
David’s portrait tells a bit more of a story about him, but by seeing his birth date and knowing the image was taken many years ago and that this was how he was chosen to be remembered I interpret as him loving his career and his work, whereas my impression of Doug was that he loved life. Reading the full article about David is an excellent lesson in not judging a book by it’s cover as he was a very interesting individual, but even from this description I don’t feel I have a sense of a real person but instead a caricature, or a generic NPC in a video game. I might know a few facts about them but not who they were at their core.
I would encourage everyone to read the full article about Doug for themselves, but here were the highlights for me:
- “Doug gave of his time generously”
- “He served as a Union Steward at the end of his career.”
- “He loved the out of doors, backpacking and gardening.”
- “The joy of his life was his 6 GrandGifts…” – what a term and way of looking at it!
- “Science Care received his body in the hope that donation and study could benefit others.”
- “He requested 2 Celebrations of Life “after March 22, 2022″ when Spring has arrived.”
I don’t think you’d see too many obituaries that stated something like “John was a real jerk and used to kick puppies” or “Susan was a conceited snob who was a terror to work for”. Let’s face it, these are always going to be skewed exclusively to the positive.
In Doug’s case however it wasn’t recollections of personal accomplishments or anecdotes like I often read about in these, it was simply statements of positive things that he DID, and little glimpses into his outlook on life, which seem to be perfectly congruous with his appearance in his photo.
I am absolutely certain that “GrandGifts” was a term that he personally used on a regular basis. Requesting services for “when Spring has arrived” is a beautiful, thoughful sentiment, and donating his body “in the hope that donation and study could benefit others” is an attitude towards humanity we should all seek to emulate.
Doug seems to have been both a man of conviction and values and also a man of action, to me embodying the axiom “action speak louder than words.” I realize that the Doug’s of the world are who I need to be looking for when I do this exercise. I’m sure there are more like him out there waiting to be discovered, and I will keep looking. In the meantime I will try to keep Doug in mind as I live my own life, hoping to embody and express values that will be an inspiration in this way to someone else in the future, reading about me when my time comes. If that happens to be tomorrow or next week, please use the picture below. If my time is a little farther out as a I hope it is, check my phone and computer as there damn well better be more recent photos, probably with a few more wrinkles and a little less hair, that express who I am at my core like I feel this one does.