Which pic to pick for your obit? It’s all about image control

    I have begun to notice that, in obituaries, photos of people date from their formative years to their most recent birthdays. When some 92-year-old men die, their obits show them in Marine uniform or Army cap, staring seriously at the camera. It strikes me as odd: Don’t they have any good images from the last 70 years?

    Steve, age 62, loves the dashing and dapper picture from his high school prom.

    Riana, 74, likes the picture of herself posing, smiling, in good physical shape, 34 years ago.

    Jonathan, 65, likes seeing himself in Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas, surrounded by blue sky and sea and white sands. “The sky is critical,” he says. The picture, however, exists only in his memory.

    I have begun to notice that, in obituaries, photos of people date from their formative years to their most recent birthdays. When some 92-year-old men die, their obits show them in Marine uniform or Army cap, staring seriously at the camera. It strikes me as odd: Don’t they have any good images from the last 70 years?

    Or have they not posed well since 1951? Or do their widows or adult children, sorting through attic boxes of memorabilia, find the single picture that best illustrates them being all they could be? Probably any of the above.

    Here’s an obit for a man named Robert, who died at home at age 74, survived by two sons and two grandchildren. This rugged-but-amused cutie would have made my head turn had I met him at a fraternity party.

    My favorite picture of myself is also absurdly outdated. So I start asking other people what image they cherish. Often their faces go soft, their voices sound tender. They remember moments and scenes that rank as personal bests and would perfectly grace their everlasting memories.

    I quiz everyone I see in the gym one morning. A man called Smiley, who is only 34 and never thinks about death notices, remembers Christmas at age 6. His birthday falls on December 25, a singular and unforgettable date every year. He’s beaming in the pic he adores.

    Linda, 72, prefers the formal portrait on her current business website. “I’m not egotistical,” she says, “so I wouldn’t use the picture of me as a high-school cheerleader or the one of me as a hippie and feminist that ran in Life magazine.”

    My loveliest, my most natural photo, the one that will grace my obit, dates from age 39. [Partial disclosure: My elder son is 44.] My husband keeps it in his wallet and on his desk.

    It was July. The sun was hot, the feelings mellow. My college roommate Barbara was visiting for the weekend. Since graduation, after earning a master’s at Yale, she had found a joyous and lucrative career as a fashion model for the Eileen Ford Agency, one of the top outfits in New York. This time she was standing on the other side of the camera.

    In addition to being intrinsically stunning, Barbara knows how an expert photographer can make any subject, even me, feel pretty. To shoot me, she accepted my son’s discarded MATH TEAM t-shirt that I was wearing, and she applied a dash of mascara.

    She found a shady spot in the backyard. As she tilted the camera up and sideways, she maintained a constant patter about how beautiful I am. “Nice, Suze. You look great. Beautiful smile. Look up. Beautiful. Beautiful! You’re so lovely. Yes! Show me how beautiful you are.” Like that, for 15 minutes, until I felt gorgeous.

    That’s the picture I hope people will remember, no matter how old I am when I pop off.

    Hawley Rowe, 35, a retired ballerina with the Pennsylvania Ballet, loves the nine-year-old photo of her tryout for “Shut Up and Dance,” the company’s annual benefit performance. “M.A.C. did my make-up,” she says, “and I look great.”

    So that’s why the young-at-heart old guys stare into the distance: They’re remembering their most heroic missions. Great memories. Great photographs. For me, too.

    Contact Susan at her website, www.writerphiladelphia.com.

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