By Pat Remick
Nine family members hovered around the bed of Donald C. Cheney when his breathing gave a sense that the end was near for the 85-year-old man known for his quick wit, irascibility and pure joy of living.
Don opened his eyes, glanced around his bed and said, “Do you people know something I don’t?”
Did you laugh out loud? I did when I read this gem in the recent obituary of the former Marine, National Rifle Association supporter and 67-year member of the Boy Scouts who’d played on the 1938 undefeated Dover, NH, High School state championship team.
Although I didn't know Don or any of his relatives, the joke catapulted his death notice onto my list of memorable obituaries. It also made me wish I’d met him. He was funny to the end.
I love obituaries. Every time I pick up a newspaper, I quickly turn to the obituary page even though more often than not, I have no connection to the deceased or the survivors.
Only recently did it occur to me why I am such a fan: obituaries are wonderful stories. Some are better written than popular novels and I suspect more than a few are just as fictional. As a writer, I am always intrigued by the type of information that ends up in an obituary -- and often wonder about who and what are left out, and why.
I believe an obituary represents a small snapshot of a life. It’s supposed to be a portrait of a person – but it’s also a history related by the surviving family and friends as they viewed it, and oftentimes it's composed by strangers at a newspaper or a funeral home.
Obituaries can be a great tool for mystery writers. They can help generate plots and character development. They can be a source of names for the people and settings of our stories. And they offer clues about lives well lived and good deaths, as well as the bad.
I’m especially fond of obituaries, like Don’s, that surprise me or make me laugh (not unlike the main character in my novel-in-progress who enjoys them so much that she reads them aloud to her dog).
For example, I appreciated the death notice about a man who requested that in lieu of flowers, his grieving friends and relatives vote for Al Gore for president. I laughed at the obituary for the gentleman who served as treasurer of the local sewer district for 23 years, “during which time there was continuous flow.”
Another favorite was the obituary for a woman who put “three meals on the table nearly every day for more than 70 years, although cooking was not as interesting to her as reading, snowshoeing, wildflower identification and bird watching.” I wish I’d had the opportunity to suggest she teach other family members to cook or learn to love takeout.
I also enjoy learning about hobbies of the deceased. It amazes me how many in New England are ice fishermen or knitting enthusiasts. Not long ago I read about a man whose hobby was visiting Dunkin’ Donuts shops. I don’t want to be critical of the dead, but that does not seem like a legitimate hobby. It’s not like there’s an official group for DD fans like the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, or a Family Motor Coach Association – two groups I learned about from obituaries. Furthermore regarding hobbies, I don’t think listing a person’s only pastime as spending time at the mall (as I read in one obituary) puts her in the best light.
Here in my part of the world, so many of the departed were fans of professional sports teams like the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics that I’ve often wondered if their organizations send sympathy cards or ever worry about losing fans to the great beyond.
I do take comfort in knowing that most of the deceased will be “dearly missed,” if you are to believe their obituaries. I doubt the man who had a “crusty exterior although some people suspected he might possibly have had a softer side” was among them, however.
Being such an aficionado of obituaries and not entirely confident my survivors will put my life in the best light, I’d already composed my own. I thought it was just fine until I read Don’s obituary. I think I’d like someone to laugh out loud at my obituary, too.
How about you? Have you ever thought about what you want your obituary to say?