I think it was William Hazlitt’s brother who remarked that “no young man thinks he will ever die.” Whoever it was he was a mysterious person who lives for us now in that one enduring observation. That is his “literary remains,” his “complete works.” And many a man has written a good deal more and said a good deal less than that concerning that “animal, man” (in Swift’s phrase), who, as Sir Thomas Browne observes, “begins to die when he begins to live.”
No young man, I should say, reads obituary notices. They are hardly “live news” to him. Most of us, I fancy, regard these “items” more or less as “dead matter” which papers for some reason or other are obliged to carry. But old people, I have noticed, those whose days are numbered, whose autumnal friends are fast falling, as if leaf by leaf from the creaking tree, those regularly turn to the obituary column, which, doubtless, is filled with what are “personals” for them.
And yet, if all but knew it, there is not in the press any reading so improving as the “obits” (to use the newspaper term), none of so softening and refining a nature, none so calculated to inspire one with the Christian feelings of pity and charity, with the sentiment of malice toward none, to bring anon a smile of tender regard for one’s fellow mortals, to teach that man is an admirable creature, full of courage and faith withal, constantly striving for the light, interesting beyond measure, that his destiny is divinely inscrutable, that dust unto dust all men are brothers, and that he, man, is (in the words of “Urn Burial”) “a noble animal, splendid in ashes and pompous in the tomb.” I doubt very much indeed whether any one could read obituaries every day for a year and remain a bad man or woman.
In many respects, the best obituaries are to be found in country papers. There, in country papers, none ever dies. It may be because, as it is said, the country is nearer to God than the town. But so it is that there, in country papers, in the fulness of time, or by the fell clutch of chance, one “enters into his final rest,” or “passes from his earth life,” or one “on Wed. last peacefully accepted the summons to Eternity,” or “on Thurs.” (it may be) “passed to his eternal reward.” “Died” is indeed a hard word. It has never found admittance to hearts that love and esteem. Whitman (was it not?) when he heard that Carlyle was dead went out in the night and looked up at the stars and said that he did not believe it. Even so, are not all who take their passing “highly esteemed” in country papers? In small places, doubtless, death wears for the community a more tragic mein than in cities, where it is more frequent and where we knew not him that lies on his bier next door but one away. In the country places this man who is now no longer upright and quick was a neighbour to all. And the provincial writer of obituaries follows a high authority, another rustic poet, deathless and known throughout the world, who sang of his Hoosier friend “he is not dead but just away.”