A Secret History of the Obituary Page

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In January 2010, Tsutomu Yamaguchi died of cancer in Japan at age 93. Two months later, in March, Morris Jeppson passed away in Las Vegas. But the year of their passing was not the only point of intersection in the lives of these two men.


On Monday August 6, 1945, Yamaguchi and Jeppson briefly came within a few miles of each other. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima that day on business. Jeppson was aboard the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, which delivered the atomic bomb.

As Yamaguchi recalled in a 2005 interview, "I heard the sound of a plane, just one. I looked up into the sky and saw the B-29, and it dropped two parachutes." Then suddenly there was "a great flash in the sky, and I was blown over." Meanwhile, on the Enola Gay, Jeppson said that only the tail gunner witnessed the explosion. "The rest of us saw the billowing clouds and the mushroom cloud rising."

Yamaguchi's nuclear odyssey was not yet over. After suffering burns in Hiroshima, he headed home, to Nagasaki, in time for the second atomic explosion on August 9. Yamaguchi is the only person officially recognized as having survived both atomic bombings.

When the Enola Gay banked sharply away from the explosion, Yamaguchi and Jeppson's lives drew apart for sixty years, until they were bound together again in death.

The obituary pages can seem like a random cross section of the famous and infamous, united only by the misfortune of mortality: a chance illness, an unlucky accident. But the lives of those who died in 2010 were often connected in profound ways, both expected and surprising.

There were the political allies, who fell at the same time. Benjamin Hooks and Dorothy Height both died last April, having served together in the civil rights movement, as the executive director of the NAACP, and the president of the National Council of Negro Women, respectively.

In a 1993 speech, Bill Clinton praised Hooks. "I could hear him intone those poems from now until tomorrow morning, reminding me of the rhythms of my childhood and the faith of our parents." A few minutes later, Clinton recognized, "My friend Dorothy Height: From the freedom schools in Mississippi to the Black Family Reunion, what a guiding spirit she has been to all of us."

In 2010, we also lost two larger-than-life Democrats: Charlie Wilson, the flamboyant Texan who aided the Afghan Mujahadeen in the 1980s, and John Murtha, the Pennsylvania congressman and Vietnam veteran. In the early 1980s, Wilson backed Murtha after he became embroiled in an FBI corruption investigation. As George Crile wrote in Charlie Wilson's War, "a teary Murtha has confided to a colleague that Wilson's efforts had saved his life." Murtha never forgot the episode, and later helped Wilson's campaign in Afghanistan as chairman of the Defense Subcommittee.

"America lost a great patriot," said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi when Murtha died on February 8. "America has lost an extraordinary patriot," announced Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, when Wilson passed away two days later.

The obits in 2010 also featured political adversaries, like Theodore Sorensen, special counsel and speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, and Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States from 1962-86.

On September 6, 1962, Sorensen met Dobrynin at the Soviet embassy. The ambassador gave an explicit assurance that Moscow had "done nothing new or extraordinary in Cuba." Just a few weeks later, the United States discovered nuclear missile sites being secretly constructed on the island, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dobrynin's false words to Sorensen added to the sense of deception and shock in the White House.

Others who died last year shared a common experience. Ingrid Pitt survived the German Stutthof concentration camp in World War II, and launched a successful acting career--appearing in the 1965 movie Doctor Zhivago.

Meanwhile, the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger served in the U.S. army in World War II, and was, according to his daughter, "one of the first soldiers to walk into a certain, just liberated, concentration camp." She forgot the name, and couldn't press her father for details due to their estrangement. The author of The Catcher in the Rye did say, "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely. No matter how long you live."

No obituary is an island, entire of itself. They are all pieces of the continent, a part of the main.
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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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