Writing About the Departed With
Art (or Sending Them Off to Hell)
Writing one’s own obituary is almost as hard as accepting compliments. Or stopping self-congratulating. Some do it for fun, but writers have turned them into an art form. A tough editorial beat, they may actually outlast both newspapers and print journalists. For now, though, every media vehicle has a file stuffed with celebrity obituaries. Just in case.
A summation of somebody’s life, they’re far from the niceties-ridden cliches of yesteryear – or when penned by family and friends. Still, some are not above using them to settle scores with the deceased, as it happened to Popeye, June, and Kathleen. Not that they’d care.
Many would be surprised that the written take on the classic eulogy, resembles an actual tombstone: title, brief vital info, and epitaph, all condensed between a few hundred to a thousand words, give or take the departed’s station in life. ‘A tight little coil of biography,’ as Marilyn Johnson put it to the NYTimes, when she published Dead Beat in 2006.
‘I try to get into the head of the person,’ says Economist’s Ann Wroe, about writing Prince‘s obituary. Her paper was a late comer to death notices, but for over a century, they’ve been a distinct feature of the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, and the Times. The genre did experience a renaissance of sorts, though, in the early 80s, according to Johnson.
Jim Nicholson, of the Philadelphia Daily News, is often cited as making an imprint on obituary writing style. He did find ways to give a patina of relevance to the life of even the most obscure stiff, by adding unusual details, dug out of interviews, and without resorting to redundant figures of speech or phony superlatives.
But no one could’ve devised what’s now a trend: the final tirade, designed to highlight not virtues but cruel flaws and unforgivable slights that the now – good riddance! – dead supposedly imposed onto the writers. Truthful or spiteful, it’s catching on and there’s no telling when it’ll, well, die out. Thus, mind your ways, or it may happen to you too.
HURRAY, HORSE’S ASS POPEYE IS DEAD
Leslie Ray ‘Popeye’ Charping, 74, died Jan. 30, in Houston, Texas, after battling cancer for years. A regular, nice obituary will go on, mentioning his good deeds, and loved ones he left behind. But Shiela Smith and Leslie Roy Charping, his two children, would have none of that.
In their brutal eulogy, they wrote that ‘Popeye’ lived 29 years ‘more than he deserved,’ and listed ‘being abusive to his family, and expediting trips to heaven for the beloved family pets,’ among his hobbies. Not ones to find anything nice to say about him, his kin added a few more choice ‘qualities’ of his.
As ‘he did not contribute to society’ and ‘possessed no redeeming qualities,’ lovely Shiela and Roy chose neither to hold any service nor ‘prayers for his eternal peace,’ in lieu of the lack of apologies ‘to the family he tortured.’ ‘Leslie’s passing proves that evil does in fact die.’
NO KIND WORDS OR DEEDS FROM JUNE
Cornelia June Rogers Miller, 86, died Feb. 23, in Gainesville, Fla, hardly knowing that her death was not going to be missed, at least for one of her daughters. Posted anonymously four months later, her obituary went viral, raising charges of plagio, and causing a bitter sibling ruckus.
‘Drugs were a major love in her life as June had no hobbies, made no contribution to society (see a pattern?) and rarely shared (more)
* A Life, Abridged
* Before Afterlife
* Ways to Go
a kind word or deed in her life,’ went on the Cherokee Scout post. ‘Very few tears will be shed, and there will be no lamenting over her passing.’
Dutifully, her son Robert Miller went to bat for the great-grandma, incensed that no relative or friend assumed the ownership over the hit piece. But to anyone not sharing their last name, the maddening, most disturbing detail is: who the hell plagiarizes an obituary?
THE WORLD’S BETTER WITHOUT KATHLEEN
Kathleen Dehmlow, 80, died May 31, in Springfield, Minnesota, and for a moment, the world was spared from knowing that, in 1962, she got ‘pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow’ and abandoned her children Gina and Jay. Forgetting it not, they went on to the offense.
By now, anyone knows the routine: that pious Kathleen would ‘face judgement’ and ‘will not be missed.’ Ignoring the ever so charitable Twitter crowd’s cries of ‘shame on you,’ the generous pair dropped the heavy-as-a-slab-of-concrete, ‘this world is a better place without her.’
Many are just as admirable as these three, and whether their alleged badness should’ve been buried with them is a quest for eternity. In any event, their oblivion notwithstanding, it’s no longer their problem.
Life, however, gives us plenty of chances to write – in deeds, not words – a nice autobiography. To do it, or at least to try to, it’s always in one’s hands. For as long as you have a pulse, there’s no excuse not to.