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Obituaries - what are they good for?

By Jonathan J. Ariel - posted Friday, 13 January 2012

A recent episode of the hit television drama House M.D. related an argument between the chief protagonist Dr Gregory House and one of his terminally ill patients. The latter pleaded to be allowed to end her life with "a little dignity".

After several feeble attempts at reasoning with her, Dr House screamed,

"There's no such thing! Our bodies break down, sometimes when we're ninety, sometimes before we're even born, but it always happens and there's never any dignity in it! I don't care if you can walk, see, wipe your own ass... it's always ugly, always! You can live with dignity; you can't die with it"!


James Sheeler, author of Obit – Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People who led Extraordinary Lives would most certainly agree.

This is a book of obituaries of people most of us haven't heard of. But that doesn't mean these people are nobodies.

The book is fascinating, educational, funny, insightful, and non-judgmental. It is rarely sad. A collection of forty-two obituaries that brings to life the recently deceased. Many of the lives visited are mundane, some comic and some tragic. All are well lived and every story reveals a focus on fulfilling one's time on earth.

Jim Sheeler, a Pulitzer Prize recipient and journalist at Denver's Rocky Mountain News penned these obituaries between 1996 and 2006 (just three years before the paper was shut down).

Obit is oddly enjoyable and fascinating. It may sound a strange book to read, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Even if you are not a fan of obituaries (and I for one am not a fan of anything remotely connected to death), you could enjoy this book from both an educational and linguistic perspective.

Sheeler's style can be described as 'spare'. In the main, he employs short sentences; eschews adjectives and adverbs as much as possible and instead uses concrete nouns and verbs. He cuts through to the essence of the deceased by quoting close friends and relatives and allowing their few words to tell the story. He utters few if any comments. Like a very good journalist, he reports and you, the reader, decide.


Each obituary is three to six pages long and the obits are listed in no particular order. The table of contents hints at the nature of the relevant obit: plane crash; teacher; cowboy etc, but hint is all it does, and vaguely so.

The many obits are similar in length and theme (they offer either a snapshot of a person's life or personality), but some differ in tone. They are however united in purpose: to relentlessly extol the sanctity of a life lived with purpose.

The obituaries in the book include people from all walks of life, children as well as adults. Most of the obituaries are not so much about the individual person and his or her life story, but more about what their life meant to the world in which they lived.

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This is a review of Obit – Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People who led Extraordinary Lives, James Sheeler.

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About the Author

Jonathan J. Ariel is an economist and financial analyst. He holds a MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management. He can be contacted at

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