Monday, August 18, 2008

Now *that* is a memorable obituary

During my tenure as a newspaper copy editor, one of my many duties was to write the obituaries. Our paper, as a community service, printed obits for free. If the family wanted, they could also buy an ad, in which they could write all the flowery prose they wanted.

I mention this because our free obits were written pretty straight--you know, like a news story. This doesn't seem too difficult until you realize that sometimes deciphering what came in on the obit form was like translating stereo instructions into Aramaic. In the dark. With off-brand crayons that didn't so much write as they did crumble and smear in more or less of a line.

One of the first obits I had to write was for one of my teachers in junior high school. That was kind of a bummer. The last obit I wrote was after my newspaper days, for my son, Harry, and it was the hardest thing I've ever written. But remembering how things would come in from funeral homes, I wasn't about to take any chances.

As I said, we had a straight news format for our obituaries, and it was not uncommon to get calls after they ran, admonishing us for not phrasing it exactly how it was on the form. In news obits, generally speaking, people die. They don't pass on, pass away, or as one form put it, "jumped into the arms of Jesus."

I took great care in writing the obituaries, though, as you can imagine, it was a hell of a way to start the day. I had to call the local mortuaries every day to see if I should be hovering around the fax machine for anything.

"Hi, this is Jeff. Just checking to see if you had anything today."

"Nope, none today."

"I guess everyone felt like living today."

"Looks like it. Talk to you tomorrow."

Yes, it's true. You can't deal with these day after day without developing a bit of gallows humor. Not to the families, of course.

In fact, I tried not to bother them unless absolutely necessary. They had enough to deal with, and part of the cost of funeral service is going over next of kin with the funeral director so you didn't have to talk to some schlub from the newspaper.

That said, after being burned enough times by less-than-stellar transcription from our sources, we ended up calling the families more often than not.

It's awkward talking to the bereaved anyway. Especially if you're a stranger. And extra especially if you are uncomfortable talking on the phone to the point that you don't even order pizza.

But we had a duty to double-check any names that were spelled out of the ordinary, confirm any discrepancies in service times, that kind of thing.

I was talking to the son of someone who'd died, and I was trying to verify the time of the Mass, as it was on there both ways.

That's another thing you learn. Depending on religion, the deceased could have a Mass of Christian Burial, services, Trisagion services, or remembrance.

Every time I asked about the Mass (as it was written on the form), he'd tell me the service was at 2 p.m. Usually, the Mass would be early in the morning, and that's why I was asking. Eventually we got to the salient point:

"No, I don't under--it's just a service. My dad wasn't even Catholic."

This also meant that the service was not, in fact, going to be at the local Catholic church.

Reading the forms was often like reading a really interesting story, or part of one. The universal thread in every obit I wrote was that the person who died would be missed by their family. Not once did I come across one that was "Mr. X was a right bastard, and in lieu of flowers, attendees are asked to line up early to urinate on the gravesite."

This obit, which I found on, comes pretty damned close, though. As the original obit link disappeared, they've pasted the text of the obit in the discussion thread.