Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The joys of obituaries

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?


Rosemary Harris said...

I confess I love reading obituaries - I hope that doesn't sound too grotesque. A few years back when the NY Times started running photos with the obits of (non-famous) people I was taken with one picture in particular. The deceased was well in her 90's but the photo was taken in her
20's or 30's. She sounded like a lovely woman, and I actually borrowed a bit of her history for a character in my first book. My little homage.

What would I like to have in my obit? Jeez..it all sounds so corny!

Annette said...

The joke around here is you read the obits first thing in the morning and if your name isn't listed, you have to get up and get moving.

And many days, they are the most interesting thing in the paper. And what I'd like to have in my own obit is all the stuff I haven't done yet.

Joyce said...

The two main Pittsburgh papers have boring obituaries unless someone is a well-known figure. They only contain the bare facts--relatives, where the deceased will be "laid out" (as we say around here), and funeral information.

Hmm. Maybe I should offer to write more interesting obits for them. I guess they wouldn't let me make them up though...

I have no idea what I want in my own obituary. I'll be dead, so they can say anything they want!

PatR said...

And what about those obituaries, like Rosemary mentioned, that use pictures from the WAAAAY past? I think there's a story there, too.... or the people who die in their 70s or 80s, and their main accomplishment listed was their high school athletic endeavors -- very sad....
Most of our obits in the local paper are fairly standard but at one point, someone was writing 700 and 800 word ones with all kinds of flowery language that irritated some of the regular readers!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I can honestly say I've never read the obits. It's just nothing I want to think about through the day. And I'm not sure about you, but I plan on living forever.

Karen in Ohio said...

With the demise of actual newspapers, I fear obituaries will also vanish. Which is too bad, since they are interesting reading for those of us who have an insatiable curiosity about our fellow man and how he or she has lived their lives.

Dana King said...

What do I want in my obituary?

Dana King, 97, shot by jealous husband.