Monday, October 3, 2011


I confess: I read the obits every day and I’ve always done that. Even when I’m traveling, I’ll check them. It’s not only my on-going search for interesting names that sends me to that section every day although that’s part of it. Mainly, it’s a fascination with people, relationships and life stories. Sooner or later in nearly every family, someone will have to sit down and compose a death notice for a loved one. This will be a few paragraphs that will make a difference. It may be confined to summing up the relationships – a quick bit of genealogy and straightforward information: the reader needs enough to learn who is gone, and to determine whether to send flowers, to make a donation or to attend a service or viewing.

For the writer of that obituary, distilling the life of their family member can be painful or even impossible. No wonder it can be reduced to a litany of relatives, the key dates and the details of the service. I am often left wondering: Did this person ever do a thing besides be related to someone else? Was there a career? A history of volunteering? Talents or special skills? An education? Travel? Adventures? Ties to friends and community? If yes, why were these things not mentioned?

Perhaps grief makes the task too difficult. I have no memory of what we put in my own mother’s obituary, being shell-shocked at the time. I’ll never know what motivates other obit writers and most likely it’s none of my damn business. After all, the format is simple, proscribed and certainly limiting. It is a public document, an announcement of sorts and lacks the informality, emotion and affection of a eulogy.

But it can be a chance to shine a light on a well-loved person. These rare obituaries are truly a gift to the subject, to the family, to the community and to the world.

I read one last week. My friend Cathy Lee wrote about her mother, Molly (Beatrice Mary Wright Petrie) who died at 89 after a short illness. I’d heard many Molly stories over the years. I knew Molly having met her at book events. I always had to be careful when inscribing a new book to her not to use the same phrase as in a previous one. You see Molly was a person to keep you on your toes. When I read what Cathy had written about her mother, I had a better idea why.

Here was a woman who at the age of eighty-nine was still an active part of her book club, her exercise group, her retirement home and her church community. I already knew that, but I learned so much more.

Molly graduated from McGill, taught high school and raised a family. I hadn’t known that she’d gone on to teach English at Sir George Williams University and also went back to school to get her TESL – teaching English as a second language – certificate. She later went on to study Linguistics and become a professor in the TESL and Linguistics Department, retiring as Chair of the TESL Centre at Concordia.

You’d think that would be enough. But Molly was not done. She filled her retirement years with fun, friends and volunteering. She worked with the West Island Women’s Shelter and the Pastoral Care Team at Lakeshore General Hospital. She drove people to appointments and church and was there to support her friends and neighbours.

She never stopped reading and playing Scrabble.

Her family and her friends will miss her desperately.

Through this wonderful obituary, Cathy not only paid tribute to her mother, but sent messages to all of us: It is worth being active and involved and it is valuable to take an active part in the community. One can grow older and still be vital, important, appreciated and admired. We can make a difference to the world we live in.

I am grateful for Molly for making the world a better place and for being a wonderful role model and to Cathy for being such a caring daughter and for making sure we knew what her mother brought to the world.

If ever there was a reason to think about how we live our lives, this was also it.
As Cathy said when I mentioned it, ‘Thank you. I was taught by the best.’

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.


  1. Molly was a remarkable woman and the obit was such a tribute to her. Thanks for sharing this, MJ. And, thank you Cathy!

  2. I really liked her and I was most impressed with Cathy's well-chosen words.

  3. I read a stranger's obit a few month's ago that, while vague in its wording, begged for further investigation or creative license. Fascinating resource material. Susan