Remembrance of Folks Past: A Reading List of the Stories We Tell

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

In “The Depth of Animal Grief,” Carl Safina writes, “A researcher once played a recording of an elephant who had died. The sound was coming from a speaker hidden in a thicket. The family went wild calling, looking all around. The dead elephant’s daughter called for days afterward. The researchers never again did such a thing.”

How do we remember our dead? We hold funerals. We engage in rituals that celebrate a life and symbolize its worth. We build monuments — headstones, perhaps, or statues. And we do something else, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. To crib a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tiny little off-off-off-Broadway theatrical experiment “Hamilton”: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”

Who lives? We do.

Who dies? They do — as shall we.

And who tells your story? The living. And while we are among the living, it is our job (if we so choose) to tell the stories of those who’ve gone. I’ve been thinking (and writing) about death and endings rather often of late. Here are some lovely examples of obituaries and tributes, some chosen by me, some chosen by helpful friends.

1. “Anthony Bourdain and the Power of Telling the Truth” (Helen Rosner, The New Yorker, June 2018)

Helen was my editor when I did this death-focused piece about TGI Fridays for Eater. She’s consistently edited James Beard Award nominees and winners, and she’s been a nominee herself. Her piece about her pal Tony is beautiful. She gives a more-than-well-deserved mention to his longtime creative collaborator, Laurie Woolever. And boy, does Rosner ever land the dismount. What. A. Kicker.

2. “Remembering Mr. Rogers, a true-life ‘helper’ when the world still needs one” (Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly, May 2017)

I met Anthony Breznican — a gifted writer who regularly creates illuminating stories about entertainment and entertainers — after we spent 15 minutes chatting at a mutual friend’s barbecue, comparing his luminous Italian-American wife’s family funeral practices to those of my own clan. It was around the time his wonderful Twitter thread tribute to Fred Rogers went viral.

In college in Pittsburgh in 2001, Breznican was going through a hard time. This essay, based on the tweets, tells his story of running into Fred Rogers on campus. Here’s a snippet of what happened at what Breznican thought would be the end of a brief, polite exchange.

That’s when I blurted in a kind of rambling gush that I’d stumbled on the show again recently, at a time when I truly needed it. He listened there in the doorway. When I ran out of words, I just said, “So … thanks for that. Again.”

Mr. Rogers nodded. He looked down, and let the door close again. He undid his scarf and motioned to the window, where he sat down on the ledge.

This is what set Mr. Rogers apart. No one else would’ve done this. No one.

He said, “Do you want to tell me what was upsetting you?”

The rest is more than worth your time, neighbor.

3. “Colonel Michael Singleton” (The Telegraph, January 2003), suggested by Neil Gaiman

I ventured through the thickest wood, o’er hills and across rickety wooden spans under which dwell only the very sexiest bridge trolls (they have never heard of the internet and will eat you if you try to explain it) to climb a talking tree atop a mountain and whisper a single word into the ether: “Gaiman.”

This, as most people know, is the only way to contact Neil Gaiman. He then sent a fox riding an owl riding an elephant riding a second, extremely annoyed fox, all of them inside a hot air balloon basket, and they appeared after two days (during which time I had to urinate on the talking tree, who had some pretty colorful thoughts to share about that), and then the owl opened its mouth and dropped a piece of paper, which had the URL for this obituary on it. I borrowed the tree’s iPhone to read it and boy, did we smile!

Colonel Michael Singleton ran a boys’ prep school and was of the philosophy that young men “should be neither cosseted nor cowed,” which is as great a recipe for raising a decent human as ever I’ve heard. I’m not 100 percent on board with all the Colonel’s methods, but I admire his sense of politeness: “Knocked unconscious during action in Holland, he was saved only when a family emerged from a farmhouse cellar to drag him inside. In peacetime he returned to thank them and was delighted to be reunited with the field glasses which he had mislaid in the blast.” He was also wounded three times in battle. Later, he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

There’s a lot more, but not too much, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

4. “The most awful kind of grief. The most beautiful memories. So long, son.” (Chris Erskine, Los Angeles Times, March 2018), suggested by Carrie Seim

My friend Carrie is a journalist who has been writing for years about all sorts of things; since journalists read a lot, I figured she’d be able to suggest a powerful example of this type of writing. And she sure did. I can’t imagine writing something like this, and yet I can, just a little bit, because writers write through pain. It’s one way that can help. Sometimes it exacerbates the agony but usually it helps – sometimes because our words end up helping someone else, who tells us so. That’s the greatest honor a writer can claim, I think.

5. “Eloquent Barbara Jordan: A Great Spirit Has Left US” (Molly Ivins for Creators Syndicate, January 1996)

“Barbara Jordan, whose name was so often preceded by the words “the first black woman to . . . ” that they seemed like a permanent title, died last Wednesday in Austin. A great spirit is gone.”

Hell of a lede. But then, it’s Ivins, who specialized in ledes, kickers, and everything in between. She catalogues Jordan’s magnificent life of public service, sure, but she also gives us personal gems:

Jordan’s presence was so strikingly magisterial that only her good friends knew how much fun she could be in informal situations. Before multiple sclerosis crippled her hands, she loved to play guitar, and she loved to sing to the end of her life. Jordan singing “The St. James Infirmary Blues” was just a show-stopper.

Barbara Jordan was the first black person from the South elected to Congress since Reconstruction. But she was a lot more than her resume, and Ivins gives us a glimpse at Barbara Jordan, musician and friend.

6. “Molly Ivins, 62; humorist who targeted her wit at the powerful” (Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, February 2007)

I love Molly Ivins — not personally, as I’m sad to say I never met her. But when I was a teenager in the late ‘90s, her work furthered my love affair with political humor, a love that began when I was a mere kid reading my grandparents’ Art Buchwald books. Here’s Elaine Woo on the final days of Molly Ivins:

In her last weeks, she devoted her waning energy to what she called “an old-fashioned newspaper campaign” against President Bush’s plan to escalate the Iraq war. “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders,” she wrote in her last column two weeks ago. “And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war.”

What would Ivins have to say today about the Trump administration’s policy of ripping families apart at the border? I have a feeling that, with some small edits, it would look much like what she wrote above.

I miss her, I miss her, I miss her.

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Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group”, which she also wrote.

Editor: Michelle Weber