2002.07.10 Writing their final stories

Written by David Green.


Here’s something to use for your column, my sister said, and she handed me an obituary from an East Lansing newspaper. It was very interesting, but I didn’t know how I could get an entire column out of one short obit.

Then The New Yorker magazine arrived with an article about the annual convention of obituary writers. I sat down and wrote.

First, let’s look at the obit of Bruce Mintz, who recently died in Haslett. Bruce was a teacher of guitar at Lansing Community College and once worked 45 minutes in a body shop.

I like that. A dose of realism, told with humor. It gives some insight into Bruce’s personality. Now let’s get to the heart of the guy:

“A National Merit Scholar, he was a gentle soul who loved gambling and cats and spoke ill of no one. Bruce never met a poker hand or a kitty he didn’t like. He leaves behind a number of poker and pinochle friends. After cremation, Bruce’s remains will be mixed with kitty litter.

In lieu of contributions, bets should be placed on a long shot.”

That’s not the sort of obit that would fit most people, but it shows a lot more personality than the typical, terse final report that appears in this paper.

I don’t have time to call the family and friends required to create a good biography. We just take what the funeral home sends, and then I make it a little more formulaic by having people die instead of “pass into life’s next adventure.”

At the obituary writers convention, they talk about those euphemisms for dying. They like to check out the new ones for the year. People are “ushered to the angels” and “graduated into phase two of God’s eternal plan” and “receive final marching orders.” One of the favorites was “went fishing with Christ on Friday.”

I’ve mentioned here before how obituaries show some variation in different regions of the country. The thing that bothers me the most in our area is the absence of a reason for death. This is a mini-history of the deceased. It’s something descendants will read through the generations. And it never tells why the person died.

A hundred years ago, obits were much more telling: “She shows in her emaciation the effects of the long wasting illness of eight months that has reduced her large, matronly figure to a thin, frail form.”

There are still some interesting details on occasion. Two years ago, this interesting story appeared in Atlanta:

David Robeson Morgan was a brilliant man whose future looked good, until he had a frontal lobotomy in 1947…. He had a nimble mind both for his age and lobotomy. His life was spent, his sister said, “struggling with his curtailed brain.”

The obituary, says the convention organizer Carolyn Gilbert, should be a story of a life, not just a notice of death. It’s a key to family history, of course, but also to community and professional history.

Unfortunately, she notes, many newspapers today merely see obituaries as a source of revenue. Observer obituaries are still free and I suppose they’ll remain that way until I get too many complaints about how someone “died” instead of “went to be with their Lord” or “teed up for golf in the Kingdom.”

This call for detailed obituaries also calls for some planning. We should all sit down and make a few notes. We need to come up with what the obituary writers call “the defining line” that tells the essence of the person. Something more than “he was a member of the Methodist Church and really loved golfing.”

The more famous among us have plenty of thought go into their obituaries. The big city newspaper writers work on their stories long before the living become deceased. The oddest question many of them have heard is this: “When is this story going to run?” The answer, of course, is “I don’t know.”

The living are sometimes uncomfortable working on their final account, but that wasn’t the case with British actor Noël Coward. When he was told by a writer that he was collecting some information “to be used in the event of death,” Coward saw the matter as entirely practical.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said of the early digging. “I’ll be dead.”

    – July 10, 2002 
  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.base Ball
    UMPIRE Thomas Henthorn tosses the bat between team captains Mikayla Price and Chuck Piskoti of Flint’s Lumber City Base Ball Club. Following the 1860 rules, after the bat was grabbed by the captains, captains’ hands advanced to the top of the bat—one hand on top of the other. The captain whose hand ended up on top decided who would bat first. Additional photos of Sunday’s game appear on page 12 of this week’s Observer. The contest was organized in conjunction with Stair District Library’s Hometown Teams exhibit that runs through Nov. 20.
  • Front.chat
    VALUE OF ATHLETICS—Morenci graduate John Bancroft (center) takes a turn at the microphone during a chat session at the opening of the Hometown Teams exhibit at Stair District Library. Clockwise to his left is John Dillon, Jed Hall, Jim Bauer, Joe Farquhar, George Hollstein, George Vereecke and Mike McDowell. Thomas Henthorn (at the podium) kicked off the conversation. Henthorn, a University of Michigan–Flint professor, will return to Morenci this Sunday to lead a game of vintage base ball at the school softball field.
  • Front.cross
    HUDSON RUNNER Jacob Morgan looks toward the top of the hill with dismay during the tough finish at Harrison Lake State Park. Fayette runner Jacob Garrow focuses on the summit, also, during the Eagle Invitational cross country run Saturday morning. Continuing rain and drizzle made the course even more challenging. Results of the race are in this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.
  • Front.crossing
    Crossing over—Jim Heiney was given a U.S. flag to carry by George Vereecke (behind Jim in the hat), turning him into the leader of the parade. Bridge Walk participants cross over Bean Creek while, in the background, members of the Morenci Legion Riders cross the main traffic bridge on East Street South. Additional photos appear on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.hose Testing
    HOSE safety—The FireCatt hose testing company from Troy put Morenci Fire Department hose to the test Monday morning when Mill Street was closed to traffic. The company also checks nozzles and ladders for wear in an effort to keep fire fighters safe while on calls.

Weekly newspaper serving SE Michigan and NW Ohio - State Line Observer ©2006-2016