Our Views: Obits affirm life’s value

We had mixed feelings while reading “The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi With Her Bare Hands,” a catchy title for perhaps one of the soberest new books of the recent holiday season.

The subtitle, “and 143 Other Fascinating people Who Died This Past Year,” hints at what’s inside. The book collects New York Times obituaries of notable people who died in 2012. The title refers to Nancy Wake, a native of New Zealand who was a high-society hostess in 1940s France when World War II broke out, prompting her to join the French Resistance. Wake, who claimed that she killed a German sentry with her bare hands, died on Aug. 7, 2011, but she’s included in the 2012 book because she passed away after the publication deadline for the 2011 obituary collection.

As newspaper writers, we’re familiar with the daily obit desk, an occupational fixture that usefully reminds us how fleeting life can be. We take some satisfaction in seeing obituaries bound between covers. The thought of death notices preserved in this way assures us that some newspaper work is worthy of being saved for the ages. But flipping through “The Socialite Who Killed a Nazi …” and seeing so many obits in one place reminded us of all the fine people we lost last year. How sad.

We’ve heard that one way to lead a fulfilled life is to consider what you’d like the first line of your obituary to say. A life well lived can mean a good life story, and we all end up as stories, sooner or later.

How’s this for an opening line:

“Eugene Polly, an inventor whose best-known creation has fostered blissful sloth, caused decades of domestic discord and forever altered the way consumers watch television, died on May 20 in Downers Grove, Ill.”

Polly, we learn from the obit, invented the wireless remote control.

We lost so many good folks in 2012 — science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, actor Andy Griffith, singer Robin Gibb, screenwriter and journalist Nora Ephron, astronaut Sally Ride.

The celebrity obituaries, of course, only hint at the larger losses, which include so many sons and fathers, daughters and wives, aunts and uncles and friends who died in 2012. They were treasured in their own way, although they lived unknown to the world beyond their circle of acquaintances and loved ones.

Here’s to 2013, and the hope that all of us will live lives worthy of a good story when the time comes.