Column, Movie Diary

Dying for a good read, life stories inspire

By Dom Cioffi

I have an odd, longstanding fascination with reading obituaries. I have never consciously thought about doing this, it just happened unexpectedly.

I believe my habit of reading the obituaries began with the death of my father, who passed away when I was 22 years old.

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Up until that time, the only death I had ever experienced was my grandfather, who died of a heart attack in his 70s. As hard as that experience was, it sort of followed suit with my perception of how life was supposed to progress — you’re born, you live a long life, and then die when you’re old.

My father died suddenly at 55 years old, which was way too young for someone in seemingly good health. I was shocked and so was the community that knew him. That experience upended my longstanding views on the progress of life.

I remember reading the newspaper the day his obituary was published and being disappointed because the man I knew was so much more than the man I read about. Like everyone, he had his pluses and minuses, but I never felt like the article I read captured who he really was.

Ultimately, I was disappointed that I didn’t write it.

After that, I started returning to the obit page when I heard about someone’s death. There were the rare, unfortunate deaths of other young people I knew, but mostly it was the deaths of the parents or grandparents of friends. I’d read their obituaries and then wonder whether their experiences in this world were fulfilling.

I remember one painful obit of an alumnus of my high school. He was a year older than me and one of our school’s top athletes. He had apparently fallen on some tough times with his transition into adult life and had accidentally overdosed. This was back in the 1980s when overdosing was something that happened to people in big cities, and long before the general public understood that most addictions are the masking of severe internal pain.

That one hit me hard because it was the first person I knew (and actually admired) who died at such a painfully young age.

My mother also had a habit of cutting out articles that she thought I might be interested in and mailing them to me at college since I was studying hours away from my hometown. Inevitability, an occasional obit would find its way into these letters. (This was how I learned about the aforementioned schoolmate.)

Once the internet kicked in and local newspapers began to put their print editions online, I started to read the obituaries more often. I bookmarked my hometown paper and would catch up on the postings every week or two. Usually, I would just do a quick scan to see if I recognized any names or faces. If a last name caught my eye, I’d click on it to see if I could make any correlations to people I knew.

And then, after I began recovering from my battle with cancer, I started doing Google searches for newspapers in random cities across the country. Once I’d locate a newspaper, I’d click to their obit section and find someone who looked interesting and then read about their life.

I don’t know why, but I began to find solace whenever I discovered a deceased person who appeared to have lived a good life. Conversely, I’d also experience a bit of pain when I unearthed an obituary about someone who lost their battle against a deadly disease or who took their own life.

With the start of the Covid pandemic and my job transitioning to my home office, my daily lunch routine now consists of grabbing something to eat, reading the online news, and then finding an obituary or two to read in hopes of discovering someone’s wonderful life story.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there is an art to writing a good obituary and that it undoubtedly requires the help of the person who is passing — or at least someone who knew them very well. You can tell when those two criteria are met because the life of the person truly shines through.

The main character in this week’s film, “King Richard,” will one day be worthy of an epic obituary given the amazing life he has lived and the lives he has affected.

“King Richard” is the story of Richard Williams, the outspoken coach and father of tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams. This film spotlights how he purposefully raised his two youngest daughters with both mental and physical training to be the best tennis players on earth.

Will Smith stars as the elder Williams and in doing so gives an Oscar-worthy performance full of grit and emotion.

This is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year and well-deserving of the praise it’s receiving across the media spectrum. Check this one out even if you hate tennis because it’s about the people and the passion, not about the game.

A triumphant “A-” for “King Richard,” available at theaters or streaming on Disney+.

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]

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