10/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are Obituaries Obsolete?

As a veteran obituary reader, I have mixed feelings about this summer's coverage of celebirty deaths.

(But first: Am I the only one imagining what's been going on in territories above us? In the scenario that keeps popping up in my head, St. Peter is making a guest list for a summer supper. Jesus? Nah, I have dinner with him all the time. Paul McCartney? Bill Clinton? Oprah! (Ah, but what do you feed her?). You know, we haven't had a Kennedy here in a while... Suddenly the perfect four-top comes to mind: Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy and, oh, how about...John Hughes. The big guy is going to LOVE this...)

Back to my mixed feelings: Normally, the obituaries are a kind of private pleasure. When I was a child, I thought it was ghoulish that it was the first page my mother turned to when she perused the paper in the morning. But then she explained that she was moved by the way it captured the fleeting and undocumentable. One day when she was 16, her mother's name was on that very page. The next day, it wasn't. One day, her own name would be there. I can't think of what word there is to describe the kind of emotions that that evokes. In Portuguese, they have the word "Saudade," which I've read can be translated, roughly, as "the feeling of missing something you love while knowing that its likelihood of return is unknowable." That's not really it...but it's close.

Today, I think I read the obituaries as a way to tap into that feeling, but that's not the main reason. For me, it's an opportunity to get an inside look at lives I never would've known about otherwise. Obits have long been one of the only places to get in depth real biographies of both famous and non-famous people, sans spin. It's like getting a chance to see a little bit of all that is remarkable in the average Joe sitting next to me on the subway. If he were dead, that is. My favorite obituary of recent memory was the one for Mary Printz, the switchboard operator who inspired Adolph Green to write the book for the play (and, later, the Judy Holiday film) Bells Are Ringing. I really can't think of a job I'd like more than being an obituary writer. (Are you reading this, New York Times? I'll work for cheap...).

This summer, I have had the feeling that the world was intruding on my private interest: There were obits on page A1! Often several times in one week! Those of us who loyally turn to the back of the A section everyday have a right to feel a little miffed about this. Like, um, you know, I was reading these things last week. I'm not just some I-only-care-about-death-when-it's-above-the-fold type. Sadder still, however, is the fact that seeing all the coverage of Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson and Les Paul and Ted Kennedy and John Hughes and DJ AM and Frank McCourt and Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Merce Cunningham has made me think that big, flashy obituaries of this ilk might be on their way to becoming obsolete, if only because I didn't need to wait until the morning's paper to get the full life stories of any of these luminaries. In fact, I didn't even need to wait until they were dead.

Not long ago, the day after his death would've been one of the only times I would've had the chance to get a comprehensive look at Michael Jackson's life story (without going to a bookstore...or taking part in an academic dissection of The Man in the Mirror lyrics). Those hours before a paper came out in the morning--those hours when the public still wouldn't have known about the event-- were reserved for the family's private mourning. Now, however, death is practically a commodity to be traded for media status: In the weeks leading up to her death last March, British terminally ill reality TV star Jade Goody suggested that perhaps she'd choose to die on camera (thankfully, she didn't).

Now, in an age of Wikipedia and celebrity fan pages and The Insider, the Times' broadsheet tributes don't pack much punch. I didn't need the paper to inform me about Michael Jackson's death, for example. To paraphrase Jason Jones of The Daily Show, there wasn't one thing in that day's paper that had happened that day. He died at 5:26PM; I got the news by 6. If you didn't read about it in close-to-real-time on Twitter or TMZ, you heard it from a friend who read it on Twitter or TMZ. My friend Jessica actually has a competition with a friend to see who can find out first about a dead celebrity. When she heard the sad news, she speed-dialed him but he answered the phone by saying "Michael Jackson."

It could be argued, however, that obits still let us have a look at dead hoi polloi, even if there are online equivalents (like the ghoulish-yet-touching MyDeathSpace, which --although no longer updated very regularly -- used to chronicle the stories and cache the pages of dead MySpace users). For instance, the day of Michael Jackson's obituary, the regular pay-per-line obituaries in the Times introduced me to Lynne Stevens, a lesbian psychotherapist and activist who sold yoga bags made from Asian fabrics and donated the funds to programs for women in need. Under Farrah's obit, I learned of Betty Allen, an 82-year-old Mezzo-Soprano who was born to an Ohio steelworker and laundress, raised in foster homes, and ended up playing Queenie in Show Boat at City Opera and soloing with the New York Philharmonic.

Even the online versions of obituaries -- be they of famous people or us regular folk--may be less relevant than the spread of news via word-of-mouth. Is it possible that we've leaned so far away from print media that even digital media is taking a backseat to a kind of Paul Revere-style spread of information? Or maybe there is just a general apathy about seeking out news because we just assume that anything important will come and find us? At a fundraiser last month, a young lawyer told me that his mother ran events at her local library and that Frank McCourt had given a reading there the previous weekend.

"But he died over a week ago," I said. He stared at me, slack-jawed. Then he pulled out his Blackberry and started thumbing the little keyboard. I asked if he was going to "Nah," he said. "I'm asking my mom."