(Photo by Tony Smallman)
This is true: in a concrete parking shelter behind the Portland Central Post Office, a seventy-two-year-old man named Floyd slept under a government surplus blanket. Floyd had worked on the assembly line at International Harvester in Rock Island, Illinois for forty years. He was married for forty-two years. I heard about Floyd from Dan. Dan runs a nonprofit called “Blanket Coverage;” he covers people with blankets for his vocation.
I do not make my living helping people keep warm. You might say I “cover them,” but that phrase would end “for a paycheck.” I write an obituary column.
I learned more about Floyd than about the deceased I memorialize. Six years of summarizing people’s lives in two-to-five paragraphs—exceed one column, you’re Section “A”–had given me a school yearbook view of the dead: “What’d you do? Who’d you know? Why’d you go?” Our staff (of three) prefers not to dissemble about our subjects, but we select which parts of the truth to report. Coroners and undertakers (as “funeral home directors” hate to be called) develop thicker calluses because they handle the bodies, but maybe that contact bestows a little honest humility. We’re more like newscasters who never move on to the human-interest story.
Obits sounded like a simple job: people die; I write about them. Pros—adequate pay, secure, home every night for dinner. Cons—slightly macabre, minimal prestige.
Turns out I missed some crucial points.