Despite the recent profusion of Elijahs and Liams and Olivias and Emmas, one of the most common names in the United States is still John Smith. And, despite our enduring efforts to make it otherwise, still the most common experience we all share after being born is to die. The overlap between these two commonalities is considerable.
During the past few weeks, for instance, a lead supervisor at the insulation, roofing, and fibreglass company Owens Corning named John Henry Smith died, in Aiken, South Carolina. He was eighty-two years old and left a large family that included a great-great-grandchild. An Irish immigrant named John Smith, who ran a bar in San Francisco (where he met, according to his official obituary, “many colorful characters”), also died. John Smith of the greater New Orleans area, whose last request was for his family to get together for a seafood boil, died. John (Cobra) Smith, who lived in Hamilton, Bermuda (not the United States, of course, but within sailing distance), and whose family members had wonderful nicknames (Pinky, Bubbles, Lee-Lee, Tiger—all befitting, it seems, a patriarch nicknamed Cobra), passed away.
Dothan, Alabama, lost the Reverend John Smith, who was affectionately known as Brother John. Birmingham, Alabama, lost a Dr. John Smith, who was an internationally known expert in molecular biology. (Not for nothing did he have a boat called the Peptide.) Montana lost two John Smiths. One lived in Whitehall, and was a miner who loved playing checkers. The other was a dentist and orthodontist who piloted his own plane and saw to it that the little regional airport in Laurel had a nice big runway. (The F.A.A. recognized Dr. Smith for his contributions in getting the runway completed.) In Saratoga Springs, New York, John Smith, who began each day with a bowl of oatmeal and a conversation with Jesus, and who invented Wearlon, a nonstick coating, and A21, one of the most ubiquitous adhesive technologies in use today, died after a brief illness. A union man named John Smith died in Riverside, California. He spearheaded many building-trade activities: he was a founding trustee of the Southern California Pavement Striper, Road Slurry, Seal Coat & Highway Maintenance apprenticeship program and of the Horizontal Directional Drill Training Trust, which taught laborers how to break bores through the ground without digging a trench. He was a famously tough negotiator and probably gave a lot of sleepless nights to union foes. On the other side of the country, in Utica, New York, a baker named John Smith, who plied his trade at Bagel Grove, Hannaford, Price Chopper, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Daylight Donuts, died of respiratory failure.
Among the John Smiths to die during this stretch of time was the owner of a concrete company in New Jersey, who was fifty-nine. His age was notably tender; most of the other John Smiths were in their eighties or older. This John Smith was from a family that was partial to the initials “J.S.”—his brothers were named Jack, Jeffrey, Jerry, and Jay—and he left behind a son named Jonathan. An even younger John Smith was just fifty-eight. He lived in Ohio, was said to have an impish, winning smile, and was partial to Harley-Davidsons. The youngest John Smith of all, who was only twenty-four, lived in New Paltz, New York, and died of a drug addiction.
In the olden days—that is, thirty or forty years ago or so—most obituaries were community matters, published in local newspapers or written out on a sheet of paper and posted on bulletin boards around town. As the local newspapers disappeared, so went local obituaries. In stepped the Internet, and now obituaries live on in perpetuity on aggregating sites such as Legacy.com. This makes them easier to access and yet weirdly insubstantial, floating in the ether for all to see. (Or not see, as the case may be, since, these days, unless you hear by word of mouth that someone you know has passed away, you probably won’t bump into their death notice unless you regularly browse the millions of obituaries online.)
We read birth announcements, wedding notices, and obituaries for the same reason: they each offer a tidy narrative. Best of all, they are stories buoyed by their elemental importance rather than the prominence of the characters. You do not have to argue the news value of an obituary—it is the ending that makes the story. Any existence, in such moments, is elevated, significant. In finality, every story is intensely individual but also emblematic; each one singular but, in some way, sharing some feature, like the many John Smiths. A chance to peer into lives as they are coming together or falling apart is fascinating and meaningful whether you know the people or not.
Afterword is an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost. If you’d like to propose a subject for an Afterword piece, write to us at [email protected]