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Reading obituaries: how one life ended

by Ginger Costen

Comedians have told jokes about it and Pete Seeger even put it to music when he recorded the anonymously written poem, My Get-Up-And-Go Has Got Up and Went.  But surprisingly, it wasn’t until I was doing research for this column that I learned it was none other than Benjamin Franklin that is actually credited with making the statement, “I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.”

I too read the obituaries. But as I’ve aged, this morning ritual has changed becoming more of a matter of my own mortality.  Am I reaching the median age of those listed in the paper or am I still good for a couple more years?  This changed a couple of weeks ago when something made me consider just how different each life not only is lived, but also ends.

It started with a visit to an estate sale in Danielson, Connecticut. The house was built in the 1960s and like hundreds of others, it was simple but comfortable. At first the contents held nothing of great importance, offering only a few items that I could use at the office. Then we noticed an aged manila envelope that so far had no particular value to the other potential buyers. Inside were the entire military records for Lt. F. A. Ward, USNR-R.  

If for nothing else but the vintage patches inside, we felt the five dollars was a good investment. But as we read about his life, Dr. Ward became a person and not just the reasoning behind a few final actions necessary to legally put another life to rest. Suddenly, I wanted to know everything I could about the man who lived instead of the nameless person who was now having the entire sum of his existence affixed to a price tag for others to haggle over on a cold winter morning in Connecticut. 

From his record I knew that he had been born in Louisiana in 1929. He’d become a dental surgeon in 1957 and served his country aboard the U.S.S. Glacier and U.S.S. Yosemite in the 1950s. Amongst other awards, I chuckled when I read that on 13 October, 1958, Dr. Ward crossed the Equator at 870-45’W and was accepted and duly initiated into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep.” And on 25 January, 1959 he “rounded the dread Cape Horn and according to the Ancient Lore of the Sea and now he may truly call himself a Mariner and is allowed to chew tobacco and spit to Windward.”

I didn’t think it was funny that so much personal (everything from his military and medical records to his social security number) information was so apathetically sold to complete strangers. Where was his family? Didn’t anyone care about this man or hold value for who he was?

According to the obituary published in the Norwich Bulletin on September 13, 2013, Dr. Ward was survived by a sister in Niantic. There was no mention of a family, children or wife; no calling hours and the burial was private.  Dr. Francis A. Ward, D.D.S., practiced dentistry in Gales Ferry, CT, from 1960-1999. He was a member of the Black Hills Golf Club and the local, state and national dental associations. Wasn’t there anyone alive today that felt Dr. Ward deserved even a moment of time to reflect his life?

I’ve seen his home and he certainly didn’t live a lavish lifestyle. He seemed to be an understated man but he had lived his life in service to others. 

My father may not have been alive long enough to teach me everything, but one thing I did learn from day one was when your life on earth is over, the important question will not be, “How much wealth did you leave?” It will be, “What did you leave in the way of service or through giving that blessed others?”

Thank you Dr. Francis A. Ward for serving in the United States Navy and for helping people in Connecticut have a bright and happy smile. May you rest in peace sir. Oh, I’m giving your military and medical files (you had great teeth) to our local Veteran’s Agent so they may be properly disposed.