It was the kind of small town, and the kind of small-town newspaper, where people still read the obituaries. And he was the last real obituary writer; instead of replacing him, they turned the job over to funeral directors, who just filled in the basics — profession, church, hobby, survivors — a paint-by-numbers outline of a life.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself. He was the last, and he was the best. He wrote the best damned obits you’d ever hope to read. They were funny and sad and beautiful, suspenseful even, which was quite a trick when the title always gave away the ending.
And he was a real writer, to be sure, narrative arc and pacing, and, of course, character development, for what matters most after we are gone, for most of us good and ordinary folk, is not plot, but character. He had a knack for asking questions in the time of fresh grieving, and really listening to the answers, the stories they told him, and the parts they left out. Sometimes he let those gaps tell their own silent stories; other times he spanned them on delicate bridges of implicature or by fanciful leaps.
It’s more than a little daunting to tell you the story of such a master storyteller, wondering how he would have said it better, like painting a portrait of Rembrandt, perhaps, and I don’t mind telling you now, with some trepidation, that I am not certain myself about what to tell and what to leave out. He never worried about such matters, or if he did, it was never evident from the obituaries. They were, each of them, light and perfect as blown-glass birds animated by morning sunlight.