Patrick Bursley keeps an eye on death. He's 92, retired from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board, and because he doesn't want to miss someone he knows who passed away, Patrick reads the death notices in The Washington Post every day.
Even when he doesn't see the name of someone from Riderwood, the Silver Spring, Md., retirement community he lives in, Patrick is struck by the great diversity of people who lived in our area.
"Sometimes there's a Latino name, sometimes there's a Greek name, sometimes a name whose origins I really can't figure out," he said. "I decided, 'Let's just keep track of it, see how much variety there is.'
"I found plenty of variety, as you probably noticed."
I noticed because Patrick sent me the Excel spreadsheet he compiled of all the last names that appeared in The Post death notices in August 2017, more than 800 in all.
There was a diversity of national origin that reminded me of a World War II movie, when a ragtag bunch of soldiers is molded into a uniquely American fighting unit: "C'mon, Bernstein, O'Brien, Luciano, Jefferson, Osuna, Popovich, Perez, Liu and Hamid! Take that hill!"
But there was also a certain poetry to the names, and as I looked at them, they arranged themselves into pleasing combinations.
There was a Bacon, a Chestnut, a Rice and a Redwine — along with a Cook to whip all these ingredients into a tasty meal.
There was a Whittle and a Wood — and a Twigg and a Forrest and a Stump.
There was a Sommers and a Winter.
A Lyon and a Tigre and a Hunter.
A Robb and a Banks and a Law.
A Salmon and a Swann.
A Faust and a Pryde.
A King, a Queen and a Pope. A Bishop and a Swindler.
A Wong and a White. A Roy and a Rogers.
There was a Faulkner and a Shaw.
A Holmes. A Baskerville. A Moriarty.
A Jolly and a Grimm. A Wise and a Bright.
There was a Man.
I asked Patrick the origin of his own last name: Bursley.
"That's an English name," he said. "There's a town in England called Burslem, and we trace back to that quite a while ago."
Obituaries are written by our newsroom staff. Death notices are classified ads, typically written by surviving family members. Most death notices are pretty straightforward, though Patrick finds some of them too long. "I think they lose something if they really go on and on," he said.
And Patrick thinks some must be composed by the funeral home. "Just the way they get launched: 'Died peacefully in the presence of the family.' It becomes almost a cliche."
Helene Silberman's death notice was not a cliche. If anything, it was a language lesson, full of the Yiddish she used around the house.
"No tsuris, no plotzing for us," began the death notice, which ran in The Post earlier this week. "Our mensch of a Mom/Grandma/Great G'Ma said goodbye to her mischpucha (family) on Saturday, September 30, 2017 at the age of 92."
Barry Silberman wrote the death notice, with help from brother Jay.
"Neither my brother nor I used Yiddish on this kind of basis in our daily lives," said Barry, who lives in Urbana, Md. "But it was something that we grew up with. My mother used to sprinkle her comments with all kinds of Yiddish words. Some she knew the proper definition of, others she butchered."
The death notice, Barry said, "sort of encapsulated what she was all about."
The death notice continued: "Oy vey iz mir? No, Helene had a great, full life and was surrounded by her family at the end of it. Kvetch? No way!"
Born in Brooklyn, Helene was married for 65 years to Sidney Silberman, an E.J. Korvette's furniture retailer who died five years ago. (Their first date was at Palisades Park.)
As Barry and Jay worked on the death notice, they thought it was something their mother would have enjoyed. So, too, would other Jewish people. And plenty of gentiles.
"We've had people email us and had a few comments from people we don't know," said Jay, who lives in the District.
Wrote one commenter in the online guest book: "Rarely read those notices in the paper and this one just caught my eye. Sorry for your loss. She sounds like a wonderful woman who raised you well and with love and humor!"
Helene had a phrase she often used: Keep your wits about you. Her sons included it in her death notice: "Mazel Tov (celebration) on a great life! Schluf gezunt (sleep well) and keep your wits about you."
Good advice for us all.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.