Insights from the obituary pages

While reading newspaper obituaries recently – the Irish sporting section – I noticed one that said a Sacramento woman had gone to heaven to join her husband.

It must be comforting for survivors to have such certainty. I grew up with the belief that God and his admissions director, St. Peter, made the final decision when a soul arrived at the pearly gates. Survivors might assume a loved one had gone to heaven based on demonstrated faith and good works in this life, but only God knew the true state of any soul. It was rather presumptuous for the living to proclaim who resided in heaven – or to take delight in the presumed damnation of a scoundrel. Deathbed confessions could work miracles.

In addition to one-upsmanship, I like reading obituaries for the glimpses I get into other lives and the eras that shaped them. Consider these two women, whose obituaries were in last Sunday’s New York Times:

Marguerite de Herczeg McAdoo, 89, was born in Los Angeles. Her grandfather, William Gibbs McAdoo, was secretary of the treasury under President Woodrow Wilson and a senator from California. Miss McAdoo was known to her friends as Mimi. A graduate of the Hewitt School, Mimi was presented in New York in 1942.

Right there, Miss McAdoo didn’t sound like someone from my part of New York. I didn’t know any young ladies who were “presented” in Queens Village society. They made their presence known at church dances or a high school prom, dressed in Penney’s fashionable attire and pretty earrings.

Mimi worked at the French Institute, the Parsons School of Design and Brick Church. She was a long-term member of the Colony Club. Mimi loved opera and was a passionate Wagnerian.

My mother, too, loved opera. I recall her listening to live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera as she did housework on Saturday afternoons. “Isn’t that wonderful?” she would sigh at regular intervals.

“Mimi was gracious, considerate, generous and stoic, with impeccable manners in the deepest sense of the word.”

I was taught to keep my elbows off the table, not speak with food in my mouth and be sure to send Aunt May a thank-you note for the $10 she sent me monthly when I was in college.

The second Times obituary that caught my attention bore this headline: “Melba Hernández, 92, a Confidante of Castro, from First Volley, is Dead.” This was a news obituary, not a paid death notice. It began this way:

When Melba Hernández met Fidel Castro in the early 1950s, she likened it to a religious experience. “I felt secure,” she said. “I felt I had found the way. …”

Ms. Hernández, who became one of the first four members of Mr. Castro’s general staff, and who died at 92 on March 9 in Havana, went on to share many secrets with the man she helped make the Cuban revolution — beginning with its opening volley, an attack on the Moncada army barracks in southeastern Cuba on July 26, 1953….

She was a presence throughout the Castro era, beginning when Fidel Castro was abandoning plans to run for Cuba’s national legislature as the candidate of a non-Communist party in favor of covertly plotting to overthrow the government. Both were young lawyers dedicated to serving the poor and dispossessed….

For her revolutionary services, which included helping to start the Cuban Communist Party, Ms. Hernández was named a national heroine, among many other honors.

Here were two women, both born before the Great Depression, who came of age in very different circumstances and lived vastly different lives. If  pearly gates exist, one wonders what God said to them upon their arrival.

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