Some of the best stories I’ve ever read were less than 500 words long and appeared in a place people seldom read unless they have to: the obituary page.

I didn’t randomly decide to start reading the life stories of the deceased. It began the usual way; someone I knew died and I read their obituary to find out when the funeral service was. He was a man I had known for quite some time and thought I knew pretty well until I saw his obit.

I had some knowledge that he’d served in World War II but never known that he’d been awarded two Purple Hearts. I was friends with his only son but had no clue that there had been another son before him who died as an infant. I had complimented him often on his beautifully landscaped yard but didn’t realize that those skills were the result of a degree in horticulture. It’s amazing the things you don’t know about the people you know until you read the whole story.

That’s what obituaries are – a person’s whole story. Where they grew up, their family life, their military service, education, hobbies, who they married, who they divorced, the children they had, the children they lost, what they believed in, what they stood up for, who they leave behind.

As a writer, I’ve found obituaries to be a source of inspiration as well as information. They provide insight on periods in history (“After graduation, she, like many other women at that time, did her part to support the war effort by working in a factory”); reveal the hardships people overcome (“His parents died when he and his siblings were very young. The children were divided up to live with uncles and aunts”); and celebrate the things that make each of us unique (“He loved baseball, stamp collecting, jigsaw puzzles and a good joke”). Actually, something I read in an obituary is the inspiration for the World War II novel I’ll be writing this November for National Novel Writing Month.

Scores of biographies are commercially published, make the bestseller list, are even made into movies. But consider this: we all have our biographies published. Most of the time, we’re just not still here to see them in print.

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