The obituary page

Somebody once said that we should read obituaries to find out how to live, not simply who has died.

Lincoln Alexander's obituaries prove that. His public achievements were huge. And the obits tell us more -- that he lived a fine, full life, lived bravely, and was loved.

The craft and the role of obits, though -- what's that all about?

I asked my friend Tom Hawthorn, an author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C, and an expert on the subject. He has been writing obituaries for the Globe and Mail for 10 years. He has had, on many people's life stories, The Last Word.

"It's the last chance," he told me, "to get it right.

"I think an obit gives a community a sense of who and what mattered. If it's an obit of someone you've never heard of, it lets you know this is someone you should have known about, or would have known about had you been around when they were in their prime. The story provides a sense of community and continuity."

For a writer, "the good obits are the ones when an interesting character has had a full life, lots of newspaper clips are available, and the family is willing to share telling details." he said. At best, "you feel you've captured the essence of a personality."

One of his faves: Gilles "Bad News" Bilodeau, a WHL and NHL goon from Quebec's Saguenay region who (and this is from Tom's 2008 obit) "created mayhem whenever he stepped onto the ice.

"He punched like a heavyweight and he wielded a hockey stick like a woodman’s axe, tripping faster rivals and clubbing tough opponents.''

The family was, as they often are, ready to share memories: 

"Mr. Bilodeau settled in Birmingham after retiring as a player. He had married a secretary whom he had met at a bar across the street from the hockey arena called, appropriately enough, The Place Across the Street from the Civic Center. They played the Bobby Orr PowerPlay pinball machine ...

"He watched 'Slap Shot' every chance he got. He would be forgiven for mistaking the comedy for a documentary."

Tom is a zealous researcher and a considerate interviewer. He found a story about a lightning strike and its aftermath, and asked the hockey player's widow, Debbie, about it. Here is the poignant and wistful ending to the obituary.

"Away from the ice, he was a lawful, pleasant, even kind man. In 1999, he was enjoying a day with his family at Panama City Beach, Fla., when a sudden thunderstorm surprised beach-goers. A man from Georgia and his teenaged daughter were felled by a lightning strike. Mr. Bilodeau performed CPR until an ambulance arrived. The girl suffered minor injuries, but her father was declared dead on arrival at hospital. Mr. Bilodeau’s wife said Bad News thought often of the unfortunate man and his family."

It might have been the best thing that he attempted: Again, how to live ...

Tom has often told the life stories of people from his own province. His new book is called (of course!) Deadlines: Obits of Memorable British Columbians (from Harbour Publishing.)