Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2002 / 26 Teves, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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The living and the dead -- "The Power of Obituaries'' is the title of an article in the current issue of Presstime, a magazine for the newspaper industry. "Obits,'' it begins. "These simple, unglamorous items are more important than you might think to many readers ... .''

Can this be a surprise to any newspaperman past a certain age? There was a time when I turned to the sports section first, then the front page. Now the sports pages are an afterthought, and the obits a must. Age tends to change one's interests.

The first sign that a newspaper is losing touch with its readers is when the obituaries are treated like a routine chore, instead of an opportunity to sum up a life. One way in which The New York Times has remained a great paper, one in touch with its community, is its obituary section, which has remained immune to the faddishness that trivialized its political and cultural coverage.

The Times' decision to publish an obit and picture of every one of those lost in the destruction of the World Trade Center has brought it back to reality. And to its readers. Endings lend perspective, and the obits teach in a way no beginning can. Maybe that's why a Talmudic sage said it was better to visit a house of mourning than a house of joy.

I spent a weekend not long ago with the dead. Do not be alarmed. My round trip by air was, to use the best of all possible words in this post-Sept. 11th world, uneventful.

I had flown up to Chicago for an old-fashioned Jewish wedding, the kind that goes on nonstop for a couple of days. The bride was a kissin' cousin twice removed, which is quite close in our overextended but never distant family.

All of us cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters spoke of those who were there only in spirit. There were moments when their presence was pervasive. We compared notes, and sure enough we all dreamed of them, especially the patriarch and matriarch of the whole, prolific clan.

I used to dream of a grandmother on the other side of the family, but it was more than a dream. It was a kind of vision. She would appear at the foot of the bed, or in the bedroom door, saying nothing, standing there, as if she were just checking on me, the way she did when I was a child. It was strange, not like a dream at all, but a presence. It was puzzling, but comforting.

Years ago I mentioned my vision to a psychoanalyst friend. One of her first questions was: Did you go to your grandmother's funeral? Why, no, I didn't. I was away in the Army at the time. That explains it, she said.

My grandmother hasn't been back since. I miss her. I never should have told anybody. Science has a way of dispelling magic.

I picked up a copy of The New York Times while away, and of course turned first to the obits. Two of them struck me as similar:

One was an obituary for Juan Valdez (1959-2001). You remember him -- the coffee farmer from the Andes, with his poncho slung over his shoulder and his trusty mule by his side. He not only sold a lot of Colombian coffee, but gave Colombia another image besides that of cocaine capital of the world and home of South America's longest-running guerrilla war.

This fictional coffee farmer was one of American advertising's most successful creations, right up there, or maybe down there, with Mr. Whipple and the Pillsbury Doughboy. His obit said Juan Valdez's logo was better known around the world than even Nike and Michelin.

Juan Valdez hasn't died, since he never actually lived. But like other victims of this recession, he's been let go. With coffee prices lower than they've been in 30 years, Colombia's national federation of coffee growers can no longer afford to spend $16 million a year on its icon. The actor who played him with inexhaustible patience since 1969, Carlos Sanchez, will still make occasional appearances, but the big time is over for poor Juan.

The other revealing obituary was that of Maria Grazia Cutuli, a photogenic Italian correspondent who was one of four foreign journalists killed in Afghanistan when their convoy was ambushed. In death she briefly became a Princess Di figure. A school was named after her in Rome, and there will be a Maria Grazia Cutuli memorial newsroom in Milan. When he heard she'd been killed, the president of the republic expressed his "overwhelmingly deep grief.'' It all made for an Evita kind of moment, as the nation tried to get its grief just right.

The newspaper she'd worked for, Corriera della Sera, named her "Italy's first casualty in this war,'' and started running different photographs of the lady every day, 18 at last count and all of them fetching.

The 39-year-old Sra. Cutuli actually had a deskbound job at the paper and used her vacations to free-lance abroad. But now she's been posthumously promoted to Special Correspondent.

"Only now has Corriera della Sera finally discovered Maria Grazia,'' a friend of hers observed wryly. She'd smile at all the funereal fuss, said the friend, remembering Maria Grazia's ironic sense of humor, "but with a small, bitter smile.''

What could Juan Valdez and the woman that Corriera della Sera is now depicting as its own esteemed correspondent have in common?

They were both fictions.

Yes, obituaries can be the most revealing part of the paper, sometimes unintentionally.

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