published Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Kennedy: Drama in the death notices

What The Obituaries Teach Us
What The Obituaries Teach Us

Ken Harpe, of Signal Mountain, has a ritual. Like clockwork, the 64-year-old financial adviser snaps open his Times Free Press every morning and turns immediately to the death notices.

"Some people might find it to be a strange or morbid thing," he said.

But when you run an office that specializes in, among other things, estate planning, there are obvious business reasons to keep up with life and death news.

Still, there's more to Harpe's habit, a sort of sweet melancholy that envelops people of a certain age.

"I'm of an age where the news increasingly is the loss of someone who has touched our lives," Harpe says.

Harpe has lived all of his adult life in Chattanooga and has a big network of friends and clients here. He came to Chattanooga from Atlanta as a young man to play football at the University of Chattanooga and never left.

His daily journey through the obits is often an emotional experience, he says. Often, he will know one or two of the deceased.

Harpe has thought enough about the obituaries to write a whole essay on the topic. (You can see the full text attached to this story on the Times Free Press website.)

I telephoned Harpe to talk about his fascination with death notices. He said he finds the obits poetic, not prosaic.

The details in an obit can come together to form a coda to the symphony of a good life, or to suggest a family in shambles, or a personality that peaked too early.

He explains in his essay:

"One realizes that often the high point of a life was reached at 19 -- a beauty in the 1940s, a no-hitter thrown in high school, surviving combat with commendation -- before the tentacles of domesticity and vocation lock one in place.

“We are moved by the death of an infant, or we stand on the edge of the abyss of despair when confronted with the glistening picture of another teenager killed in a senseless car crash.

“We talk to God on the pages. We thank Him for a life well led, for one who touched our life. And sometimes I come to Him not as a supplicant, but man-to-man with my fist clinched.”

Harpe said he can read between the lines in some obits. The obits of the influential and affluent are often filled with neat rows of accomplishment embedding in unadorned prose, he said. In others, he says, the desperation of the survivors is as clear and heart-wrenching as sobs at a funeral.

“... (When) one reads that ‘a fund for the children of XYZ’ has been established at a bank or church, one realizes that there is no money; not enough assets, more need than provisions. The children (and the spouse), unless very lucky, are thrown back into a world of Charles Dickens’ 19th-century England, dependent of the alms of friends and charity.”

Harpe ends his essay on a hopeful note. If people would only give some thought to there own mortality, much of this suffering could be avoided, he says.

“The planning tools: wills, trusts, powers of attorney and life insurance can be simple and easy to put in place,” he says. “One has within one’s power to ask and answer the question: What do I want to happen — now — and when I die?”

If you’re reading this column, in other words, it’s not to late to edit your own obituary.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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