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By Tom Shroder
Friday, January 2, 2009

Good news: If you are reading this on Jan. 4, you have a 99.173 percent chance of seeing New Year's Day, 2010. The bad news is that even so, calculating from government figures for U.S. mortality rates, more than 40,000 people in the Washington area are likely to pass away in 2009. A similar number of lives were lost in 2008, plus many more who, though not residents at the time of their deaths, had been deeply associated with Washington during their lifetimes.

That's a lot of people to mourn and memorialize, a mountain range of obituaries and death notices. Despite the heroic efforts of our obituary desk, there's not enough space in all the pages of all the newspapers in the world to do those lives justice.

That's why you'll see notices in The Post like the one that ran on Sept. 28:

PHELAN, Nicole Geary, 22, of Great Mills, a student at the College of Southern Maryland, died Sept. 18 at Charles County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in La Plata.

Which, if you didn't know Nicole Geary Phelan, tells you nothing, except that a woman died far too young. It certainly gives no hint that in the months before she fell ill, Nicole was planning her dream wedding. Or that after her cancer diagnosis and the rapid deterioration of her health, Nicole and her family worked devotedly to fulfill the dream of her lifetime and carry off the wedding against daunting odds. And it can't suggest the tragic and heartbreakingly romantic culmination to a life that ended barely four months after Nicole learned she was sick.

All this Sandy Fernández, a Magazine assignment editor, discovered as we set out to honor in this issue all those who died in 2008 by finding the stories behind a handful of representative obituaries and death notices.

The obituary of Del Ankers, for instance, told us his "neighbors were never quite sure what he did for a living . . . It was years before [they] learned that [their] hermitlike neighbor had a long career as one of the premier photographers of mid-century Washington." Though the obit was extensive, there wasn't space to convey a fascinating quirk of his eccentric genius or to display his stunning photographs. (See Page 11 if you think I'm overstating.) No less compelling was the story behind the obit of Susan Hager, a boss so beloved that one of her staff literally gave Hager her kidney.

Of course, the 11 lives glimpsed in these pages can pay only symbolic tribute to the thousands whose names we will never know. But we hope they are a reminder of the significance of all human lives, and the enduring truth of John Donne's famous meditation: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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