Death may have no mercy, but it frequently offers some fascinating stories

I’m a big fan of the obituaries page in the Sunday paper. It may seem a little morbid, but I love the mini-biographies and micro-histories of the semi-famous and somewhat influential that can be found there. Reading an interesting, well-written obituary is among the most entertaining ways to learn a sliver of knowledge about a particular period of time, perhaps something I never knew about or of which I was only partially aware.

For instance, New Yorkers may know that every holiday season at the Rockefeller Center skating rink a band composed entirely of tubas plays carols and other seasonal music. Who started this tradition? Well, meet Mr. Tuba. (Click photos to read the stories.)

Remember the phrase “Ping-Pong diplomacy”? Meet Dick Miles, one of the table tennis players who helped effect a thaw in U.S.-China relations after twenty years of political deep freeze.

For a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, radical political groups like The Weathermen and The Black Panthers were perceived as a real threat to the stability of American society. Sometimes this perception was based on actual conspiracies to cause destruction, but sometimes members of these groups were framed by local police officers and federal agents. What happened to the ones who fled the country when they felt their lives were threatened because of their political work? Meet Michael Tabor, who left the U.S. when we was falsely charged with numerous crimes and then spent the rest of his life in Africa.

All three of these stories were on the same page in this last Sunday’s New York Times. I had to marvel at the breadth and depth of these articles. Each offers a very different bit of U.S. cultural and/or political history, yet they all tell tales of individuals who were arguably monomaniacal. Harvey Phillips hounded nearly every composer of any note of the last 30 years to get them to compose a piece for the tuba (and he named his home “Tubaranch”!). Dick Miles “briefly attended New York University, but mostly, from then on, . . . played table tennis.” For his whole life. Tabor refused to return to the U.S., even though he was cleared of all charges and was eventually expelled from Algeria, where he first landed after fleeing.

Obituaries offer bite-sized morsels. They often round off the lives of their subjects to give them a probably unnatural and yet satisfying shape. They show us glimpses into life as it has been lived by unique — often quirky — individuals. Next Sunday when you’re flipping past the front section to get to the sports or society pages, why not linger for a few minutes and take a peek into the past?

6 responses to “Death may have no mercy, but it frequently offers some fascinating stories”

  1. lane says:

    this is amazing, i just got done reading the obits, today there is one on the graphic designer that did the cover jacket for “In Cold Blood” and “The Godfather”

    so funny to bounce over here and see that Tuba guy and think “Hey I know who that is!”

    Nice to know i’m not the only one doing this.

    Did you read the one about the Nazi war criminal who was still under investigation when he died? It was a couple months ago, it was an amazing story.

  2. lane says:

    oh, and it’s not just sunday, semi-famous monomaniacs croak every day!

  3. “Semi-famous monomaniacs croak every day!” would make a great tag line for an all-obits newsletter.

  4. Tim says:

    Yes, I’m certainly aware that the obits can yield wonderful fruits every day, but Sunday is the only day I can find the time and space to read them. There’s something, too, about reading this section from a physical newspaper that really enriches the experience for me (I think the happenstance of layout has a great deal to do with it), and Sunday is the only day I subscribe.

  5. Stella says:

    As a foreigner, I do find the obits very helpful history lessons. Sometimes it’s only when someone dies that I finally understand their place in cultural history.