2002.07.10 Writing their final stories

Written by David Green.

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 
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