Culture

Death of a Democrat

(MarcBruxelle/Getty Images)
A career bureaucrat goes viral after death by writing his own obituary, raising questions about whether government equals fulfillment.

You don’t see many obituaries written in the first person, but a notice from the Massachusetts paper the Berkshire Eagle is an exception, and a drily elegant one at that. “My name was Bruce Garlow,” the piece opens. “I died at 72 due to complications of kidney disease on Friday, April 23, 2021, at BMC. Not quite what I planned when I moved into our new home only 7 months ago, but there you have it.”

The nearly jocular acceptance is disarming, and ultimately pleasing. As I read through the (notably lengthy) death notice, I was put in mind of Michel de Montaigne: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” (Montaigne was quoting Cicero, who in turn cribbed from Plato.) Montaigne went on:

The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: To know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.

Bruce Garlow’s only complaint as he confronted the end was that life was, at 72 years, “a little short.” He died well. But by the time I finished the piece, I was thinking not of Montaigne but of Anton Chekhov, that lightly acidulous chronicler of obtuse burghers and self-deluding bureaucrats. It’s striking what Bruce Garlow considered important enough to mention in his final statement, and what he did not.

Garlow spends the bulk of the essay listing his career achievements, an evident source of pride and self-definition. When he notes that he began his professional life in the U.S. Postal Service, I couldn’t help but think of Seinfeld’s Newman — the mailman as micro-authoritarian, a tyrant prevented from indulging his thirst for control only by his lack of real power. This was quite unfair of me. And yet the rest of the obituary tended to reinforce the impression that the deceased was a man who admired above all else the administrative reach of the state, of which he was a very small but very enthusiastic part.

Can a person be proud of having served in local government? Undoubtedly. Such people often do important work in keeping our society functioning — keeping track of the real-estate records, counting the ballots. But this passage devastated me, both in what it said and what it didn’t: “I was predeceased by my wife of 28 years, Leslie Rudolph-Garlow, who died in 2008, and my daughter Lisa L. Garlow who we lost at the age of 48 in September 2020.”

How awful. That’s a distressingly young age for a daughter to die. No parent should ever have to bury his child. I imagine deep wells of sorrow underlay this sentence. It sounds as though Garlow’s wife died fairly young also. (She was 58, according to her own obit in the same paper.) There is a lot of unspoken sorrow in that paragraph also.

Or is there? I couldn’t tell. In 800 words, this is all the dead man has to say about his spouse and his daughter. Names and dates are all we learn about them. Maybe Garlow simply couldn’t bring himself to say another word about them. Maybe the pain is still too fresh, all of these years later, and perhaps in continuing a proud tradition of Yankee stolidity, Garlow thought it best to deal with loss by remaining resolutely tight-lipped about it. Perhaps he thought emotions are best conquered and restrained rather than indulged. Or maybe the opposite was the case: Perhaps by the time they passed, he no longer felt a strong connection to them. That does happen. As I say, I don’t know.

What I do know, from the essay, is that Garlow had a true calling in life, a robust and passionate lifelong love, and it was bureaucracy. We learn this because, with his dying words, he ransacks the thesaurus for synonyms for “functionary” and revels in a series of titles that sound like a comic litany from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta:

I retired after 20 years as town administrator in Richmond . . . conservation administrator . . . administrator for the town of West Stockbridge . . . interim administrator in Lanesborough . . . district aide for former Rep. Christopher J. Hodgkins . . . chair of the board of the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts . . . member of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, which generously awarded me its conservation administrator of the year award in 2001 . . . board member of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, co-chairman of the Berkshire Advisory Committee to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, a member of the MCAD state advisory board . . . many local and regional governmental committees, commissions and task forces.

Down the decades, whenever a commission, committee, administration, or task force needed staff, Bruce Garlow was your man. Though he calls himself a “Democratic party activist,” that is as far as he goes toward explaining his underlying motivation. At no point does he refer to any sort of principle driving his zeal to administrate; he doesn’t say anything like, “I fought for fair housing via my service in . . . ” or “I helped expand voting access by . . . ” Merely having been part of the machinery of government, it appears, is what delivered to him his greatest satisfaction.

And so I finished this ostensibly larkish obituary with a certain sense of sadness. A man loses his wife at 58 and his daughter at 48, he lives more than threescore and ten years, and what he’d like us all to remember about him is a lifetime of being an unusually fervent administrative committee task-force member. One pictures Bruce Garlow arriving in heaven, as streams of the blessed dash through the gates to enjoy what lies beyond them, to ask St. Peter whether he might possibly give Garlow a job in the gatehouse itself, perhaps as a member of a committee dedicated to the discussion of gate-maintenance commission-board appointees or seraphim regulatory task-force administration protocols.

I feel bad for anyone who spends 72 years on this earth and in his valediction reserves his final words to suggest that fulfillment lies in commissions, boards, and task forces — the ersatz family of government.

Recommended

The Latest