Alaskan Obituaries that Inspire the Angels

Heather McElhatton
May 18, 2015

Part of A Beautiful World

Author and journalist Heather Lende writes obituaries for the Chillkat Valley News, a small newspaper in her hometown of Haines, Alaska. She recounts the many life lessons she's learned writing obituaries in a small town in her new book: Find the Good.

Haines is a tiny coastal community (population about 2,000) located on a narrow spit of land that stretches out into the sea. Surrounded by mountains and only accessed by boat, plane, or a few roads leading out of town, the close knit quality of daily life there may be one reason her obituaries are so intimate and personal. Lende has usually met anyone who dies there.

Extended Interview Audio Available on SoundCloud

Life Lessons

"Writing obituaries in a small town has taught me to find the good, even in situations and people when it's not so obvious."

Lende recounts a wealth of common sense and deep thoughts accumulated over the years, ever since she was assigned her first obituary in 1996. Each chapter of the book tells a story that's quirky and profound, while highlighting Lende's unique writing skills and innate ability to find the good, even in the saddest stories.

"Writing obituaries is my way of transcending bad news. It has taught me the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations, and that practice — and I do believe that finding the good can be practiced — has made my life more meaningful."

Bad news is not unknown in Haines, which Lende says is a difficult place economically. The town is populated by artists, "aging hippies," young families, small shop owners, state workers, fishermen and Tlingit Native Americans. Nobody has a "career," and you won't find any big retail or chain stores in Haines, whose rundown main street is populated by small "1950's" style shops. That's just fine by the citizens of Haines however, who the author describes as honest, hardworking people that value a way of life over material belongings and wealth. This makes every single citizen special to Lende, and she says every obituary gets the same respect and attention.

The Extraordinary Ordinary

"I think ordinary people are successful. Today, it seems we only hear about celebrities or people who do awful dramatic things, and I want people to know I think it's successful to be a schoolteacher, or a janitor, or a nurse, or a fisherman. Those are the people we depend on, those are the people who make a community and that saves us as a society."

Lende has had to compare darkness with light in her own life as well. She loves her home in Haines, where she lives surrounded by her family, her garden, her chickens and a beloved golden retriever named Pearl, but she's no stranger to tragedy. She was nearly killed ten years ago when a truck ran her over. She had a slow recovery, spent largely in a nursing home, where she says she was stunned by the sheer kindness of complete strangers. The experience led her to become a hospice volunteer and sit with patients who are dying, which she considers an honor. "We're all writing our own Obituary every day," she says, "by how we live."

Lende's goal is to find the good in every person's life, no matter how hard she has to look for it. She visits with relatives of the deceased, researches online, talks to friends and distant relatives, until she finds the nuggets in a life that shine. Every life, in Lende's hands, is notable and important. Every person had or did something good at one time and she hunts those moments and facts down with the spirit of a kind-hearted but hard-hitting investigative reporter.

"I begin each obituary with a phone conversation, followed by a visit. For reasons I'm not sure of, but that one priest told me may be my calling, I am able to enter a grieving household, pull up a chair, sip some coffee, observe, listen, ask questions that (I hope) will ease the pain, take notes, and recognize the authentic lines when I hear them. Finding the good in this situation is often challenging; it is not always obvious. If I concentrate and am patient, though, it will reveal itself."

The Divine Details

As Lende collects memories and details from a person's life, she fashions them together like pearls on a line, building a case for each individual. She finds divinity in the details and poetry in the mundane. She finds grace and mercy within every death she writes about, even amidst every disaster and tragedy.

"After an elder who has been housebound and incapacitated by a stroke for 25 years dies, I find time to sit on the sofa and look through family albums with his widow and admire how handsome he was in his World War II uniform and how happy they both looked on that beach vacation the year before he was stricken.

When 12-year-old twins lose their mother to cancer, I will quote their father praising them and tell how he plans to take them on a family drive across the country to see their grandparents. And perhaps hardest of all, on the snowy winter morning when I meet with the parents and siblings of a young man who drank too much one night and shot himself, I write down how very much he had loved to swim in the lake in front of their summer cabin."

Tickets to Heaven

When asked why she goes to such lengths to find the good in each obituary, Lende admits an ulterior motive. "I'm a church-goer and I'd like to believe in Heaven. I asked my friend, Father Blainey, an old-school Catholic priest from Boston, if non-believers go to heaven and he said to me: 'When your time is up and you meet St. Peter at the gate, he's going to ask you one question: Have you been good to Gods people? And if you can answer yes, you've got it made.'

And so maybe every time when I'm writing an obituary I try to find some place or one moment where that person was good to somebody…and write it down. I consciously try to find the good in that person's life, I want to make sure it's documented so that person can be eternal in some way. So maybe that's why I spend so much time writing obituaries. In that way, I've helped give someone a ticket to heaven."

So that's the secret behind Lende's obituaries, the reason she takes such care with each one. She's doing no less than writing people tickets to heaven, making a final appeal to the angels for even the most unlikely souls. She's doing nothing short of making a case for each person's place in eternity, be that here in our minds on earth, or out there somewhere in the next world.

Finding the Good

When asked if she's thought about writing her own obituary, Lende laughs and says no. She's not worried about her obituary, but she does have one hope for how people remember her:

"As an obituary writer, I lean toward elegiac couplets, and I have five children, which also adds a lot more variables. One size won't fit all of them. I took another tack. I pretended I was on my deathbed. (I'm 54, have survived being run over by a truck, and I had a headache, which I worried might be a brain tumor, so this was not such a big leap.) I imagined I'd already said goodbye to my husband, children, grandchildren and all the great-grandchildren I hadn't even met yet. If indeed all the wisdom I had in my heart was to be summed up in final words and it was difficult to speak more than, say, three, what would I rasp before my soul flew up the chimney? Find the good. I surprised myself with this pretty great notion. Find the good. That's enough. That's plenty. I could leave my family with that."

Photos Courtesy of Heather Lende.

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