Getting the Last Word
Article byPosted Featured AuthorSeptember 2021
Although I’m one of the last fourteen people in the state to get an actual “paper” newspaper, I confess that I skim over a lot of it. I read the obituaries, though, every day. It may be a purely age-related habit — I’m ordinarily not the gloom-and-doom type — but I try to keep up. And my friends depend on me to let them know who’s in there. In any event, I figure that, between the obits, the comics, and Dear Abby, I’ve covered death, humor and “huh? that’s a problem?” all in one place. And not necessarily in that order.
Obituaries should fit the person, I guess, and reveal what was important in their life. We can only guess what reaction the community will have when reading our obits, but one thing’s for sure, the reaction will be, at least partly, based on how old you were when you died. Early in life, it’s “Oh, he was so young” or “She had her whole life ahead of her.” Later, it’s “What a shame – cut down in his prime.” I figure I’m somewhere between “Well, she lived a good life” and “She was still alive?”
If you’re really concerned about evoking a certain response to your obituary, you should probably write it yourself. Hell, it’s your obit; it should reflect your personality, not the personality your children wish you had. Besides, their perspective on your life may be vastly different from yours – for example, what you characterize as a priceless collection, acquired over many years of painstaking acquisitions, is to them just a floorboard full of beer bottle caps.
A self-written obituary gives you one last bit of control over your public persona. Only you know what’s important to you, and your kids may not realize how noteworthy it is that you won the 9th grade spelling bee. And, in addition to the written word, when you draft your own obit, you can select your own photos. I’m all for including a picture of a younger you. My personal choice is a picture taken when I was in my mid-20’s, wearing a bikini, and looking pretty darned good. My kids already understand that Mom calls that the obit picture, and it is probably going to disappear before my demise. Anyway, it might cross the boundary between an obituary and a dating profile, so I may have to find a slightly more conservative — but equally foxy — picture. (Pre-arrangements are also a good idea. For one thing, I want my service to be at the church. As much money as I’ve contributed to it, they can at least host my last party.)
By authoring your own obituary, you also get to decide which of the bereaved to mention by name. I’m thinking spouses/partners (current, not former, unless you still have Christmas dinner together), kids, grandchildren, dogs, and siblings, in that order. Okay, maybe move dogs up a couple of spots. It’s not necessary to comment on your relationships with each person mentioned; save that for the reading of the will.
That’s not to say that children will never do a great job on an obituary. Two of my favorites, both written by children of the deceased, are the obituary of Mary “Pink” Mullaney of Wisconsin, who died in 2013 at the age of 85, and that of Joe Heller of Connecticut, who died in 2019 at the age of 82. Pink was known to put a chicken sandwich in her purse to share with a homeless person after church, offer rides to people caught in the rain, go to nursing homes and kiss everyone, and invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner, even if they were from another country and you had to “listen with an accent.”
Joe hoodwinked “an exceedingly proper woman and a pillar in her church” into marrying him, making her think “he was a charming individual with decorum.” He spent the rest of their marriage embarrassing her with “his mouth and choice of clothing.” After many years of “shopping” at the local dump, he left his family “with a house full of crap.” His daughters suggested waiting a suitable amount of time before coming to claim any of it, noting, “We’re available tomorrow.”
On the other hand, a children-written obituary can backfire, especially if the dearly departed was not especially nice to them. For example, the obituary of Dolores Aguilar, who died in California in 2008, reported that she “had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life.” Leslie Ray Charping, who died in Texas in 2017, was described by his children as having lived twenty-nine years longer than expected “and much longer than he deserved,” leaving behind “two relieved children” and “countless other victims.” Ouch.
So, those of us to whom death comes without adequate preparation (i.e., we know the Grim Reaper is in the neighborhood, but don’t realize he’s on the front porch) will have to rely on our children (mine prefer the term “beneficiaries”) for that last press release. Some questions to ask yourself – Are your children reasonably articulate? Do they know enough about you to include meaningful details? (Of course, that could work both ways.) Do they like you? You might want to look around at the nursing home they stuck you in before you answer that last question. If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you’d better get pen to paper.
With that in mind, no matter who authors the obit, some common phrases just drive me up a wall. I know, I know, it’s not nice to judge the dead, but, if you’re over the age of 85, it’s probably not necessary to mention that your parents predeceased you. (If they are still alive, however, that should probably be printed in boldface.) While I realize that grieving family members want to soften the event, and believe that their loved one shot up like a missile to heaven (and maybe she did), there’s nothing wrong with the word “died.” Also, the word “matriculated” means “enrolled,” not “graduated.” There is a difference between “it’s” and “its”, “their” and “there”, “fewer” and “less”, and “that” and “which”. (If any journalists are reading this, please take note. Grammar is apparently no longer taught in school, and editing must be a lost art.)
Still, obituaries remain a fascinating glimpse into lives well (or not-so-well) lived. Whether we knew the deceased or not, obituaries can make us sigh with regret over an untimely death, smile at the stories that describe a truly unique character, and admire the lifetimes spent in service and good deeds. Let’s not take them for granted. I can see a future where they will read like text messages: “Annie Smith passed. ☹ U r invited to funeral & pig roast. Its Saturday at there house. Cash bar.”