A published novelist and dairy-cooler organizer at the Park Slope Food Co-Op has started writing obituaries for dead members. He's already published one in the co-op's newsletter, and is planning to write more, although he's not going to write any pre-mortum like a traditional newspaper might do for, say, Bob Dylan.
In fact, Thomas Rayfiel seemed surprised we would even ask such a question. "That would be a little creepy," he said. "I'm not going to go around to people who are old and doddering and ask them for some personal information now so it will save me time later."
Rayfiel does, however, seem interested in making sure that dry-bean sorters and checkout line attendants don't disappear without proper recognition, a circumstance that the co-op's newsletter laid out bluntly this month:
One of these days your Coop shift may roll around and you will not sign in. Not because you’re on vacation, laid up with the flu or, miracle of miracles, finally retired, but because you have died. Your next of kin may notify the office, but it might be another month before your squad members learn you’re not coming back. And that could be the last they ever hear of you, an unfitting end to a relationship, whether it was only a few months or many years long.
Each obit, two paragraphs in length, will be half work-life, half co-op-life. ("Among his jobs was restocking the bulk items," reads the first one, published this month.)
Apparently puzzled by our interest, Rayfiel described his concept in narrow terms.
What inspired you to start writing obituaries for co-op members? If you're shopping or working off in your own world, you're aware of people around you but a lot of the jobs don't require a lot of talking. I know the people by sight who I work with, but I don't know their names.
If someone dies, someone on the shift will sometimes tape up a thing saying 'Oh, John passed away,' and you see it and you wonder, oh was that the guy... but you're never really sure. I just thought a Scotch taped, hand-written announcement seemed kind of sad.
What do you like about obituaries? They're one of the only things you can be reading that you're sure is truth—this guy is dead. The rest is opinion.
Is there some sort of macabre spirit/feeling/essence that haunts the co-op? It's a living community, that's all. And I wanted to do my bit. I didn't want to do anything that ventures into mythology or legend. It's just people who are working together to get good and cheaper food.
Have you gotten any positive feedback since the project launched this month? It's not like I'm crouched by the phone waiting for people to inundate me with obituary orders, but I've done one and we'll see. I assume it won't be my last obituary.
If you were writing your own co-op obituary, what would you include? There would be no point in it, because I'd be dead. I would leave it to someone else. I'd no longer be a member of the co-op.
And for a true Park Sloper like Rayfiel, that is a fate worse than death. It's currently unclear who would cover Rayfiel's obituary-writing shift should he find himself no longer living, but that's something the co-op will need to work out through a lengthy debate process.