The years away from a community newspaper made me forget how close a relationship a small paper has with death.
Most often it is formal. At times it is close and raw.
In the former category, death has its own email address at the News-Topic, and many other newspapers. The names of the dead flow in as regularly as church announcements and the fundraisers for the community calendar.
An obituary is like an English butler who enters to tell the host that death has arrived and is waiting in the foyer. It is part of the ritualized structure society imposes that makes death feel orderly, filing off the sharp edges. The names of family and loved ones pass in sequence. No child is ungrateful or estranged, no marriage troubled or blemished. Gray areas are brightened, smudges erased.
The order can be chipped away with a phone call from a grieving mother. She lives in another county and knows the day her son was murdered but not when the obituary ran, and she desperately wants a copy, the final record of his passage through the world. We page through the papers, day by day by day by day, find it and carefully cut it out and seal it in an envelope, imagining her seeing the paper’s name on the envelope, and the tremble in her hands as she realizes what it contains.
Sometimes we learn how death arrived, even if we don’t yet know the name of the dead. In the morning we get word that several hours earlier, as our reporters lay sleeping and our pressmen readied to print the coming day’s paper, a young man who perhaps was sleepy, perhaps tipsy, rounded a bend in the road too loosely; his tires slipped off the pavement, so he jerked the wheel back, and his car careened across the road sharply, pitched over an embankment and hit a tree. In the suddenly quiet darkness, he and the car grew slowly colder.
Those reports, from the Highway Patrol or a police or sheriff’s department, are like a note from death left on the desk. “Was in the neighborhood, took care of a few things. …” The reporter knows he’s not the first to learn where death had been, but he knows he is among the first.
Sometimes we’re close behind death. Hearing a report on police scanners, we rush off and, as a laden ambulance speeds off, arrive to see a crumpled mass of metal that 30 minutes earlier was a car barreling down the highway, but where a driver had been there now is only a tiny pool of blood on the Scotchguarded fabric of the seat.
Sometimes we arrive and the ambulance is still there, its crew standing in the darkness near a dimly lit, dilapidated mobile home. Standing outside the property line, still we can hear the anguished sobs of a man telling officers what happened. We see flashlights sweep a window from inside, where investigators inspect the bloody evidence. We shiver against the gathering frost, but perhaps also against the sense that on the other side of that window, death might be looking out.