Obituaries

I might as well live on the North Slope. Or Ultima Thule. Or Westeros. It’s cold here on Long Island and Yours Truly is not one bit pleased, not one little bit. Today is the sixth day in a row of rain:

You can’t see it, but those watery icicles on the edge of the table are dripping as if the cruel goddess of Crappy Springs is dumping an infinite ice bucket of Liquid Depression from on high. I’m not into this at all.

And it’s so cold that Steve is back to spending his days in his Winter nest half-way under the bush/all the way under the eaves by the front porch:

Here’s a close up because I know you want more of Steve-o:

I had to put my electric blankie back on the bed. I’ve had to don the dreaded Winter fleece once again. And I’ve been eyeing the vodka almost non-stop since 11 AM.

I would love to complain all day but we have a blog to do. So let us get to the topic of the day: Obituaries and How To Write Them and then we can declare it Happy Hour.

Let us start this without backstory (for now) so you can read this obit clean, like. Let’s pretend that you are opening your October 8, 2014 New York Times newspaper to the obits pages:

 

There’s only one photo in the paid portion of the obits, and it draws your attention immediately. You read:

Yes, that’s the obit I wrote (except for the bit “in acceptance of the inevitable” in the first first sentence and the entire last sentence, which were written by my sister Buffy, who also edited the obit for length). Rolly didn’t have children, so that’s why I was tasked with giving the last word about the family’s favorite relative.

As you can read, I did not use Rolly’s obit as an excuse for every related schmo’s to get their name in print. I object to having to read lists of names of survivors in an obit, particularly the grandchildren (the boring Caitlyns, Kaylas, Taylors, Tylers, Madisons etc), who should earn their place in the New York Times by dying, same as everyone else. I wrote this obit to be all about Rolly, not about is survivors.

Re-reading this for the first time in two and a half years I can spot some clunky writing that I would love to edit (adding one transition and cutting out two adjectives) but for the most part, I’m happy with it.

P.S. This obit cost about $5,000. The Times is not cheap.

Here is what I believe when it comes to writing obits:

1. I believe that obits should give a reader a lively biographical account of the dead person’s personality and values. The best way to make that kind information entertaining is by telling stories, which means putting the relevant bio details in context rather then merely listing dates and accomplishments.

Listing of dates and boring facts should be kept to a minimum — does the world really need to know the exact date of one’s college graduation? Or marriage? Really? (Sorry, Deborah, and all future genealogists; obit writing is an art and you can’t make art out of public records.) Too many dates allows down the pace and retards the fun factor of an obit, makes it too much like homework.

2. Avoid being predictable. In obituaries, everybody who gets out of the house is a “world traveler”. Everyone who ever laughed at their own jokes had “wit”. Every over-eater had “gourmet tastes”. Every Tom/Dick/Henrietta will be “sorely missed”. Anybody who had kids was “devoted to family”. Every kid that dies young had a “smile that lights up a room”.

3. Never list adjectives in lieu of real sentences — to quote an obit on the same page of the NYT as Rolly: “A woman of great warmth, optimism, humor, and beauty, [the dead lady] always saw the best in others and brightened up the lives of family and friends.” Having read that sentence, aren’t you left with the message that this lady didn’t make much of an individualistic impression on those around her? She is described only in relation to others, no mention of what she did to actualize her own self, who she was in her own right — we’ll never know.

3A. If you must list adjectives because the New York Time’s ain’t cheap and you’re on a budget, pick interesting ones. Pick adjectives that describe the dead person’s individuality, not their qualifications for sainthood.

P.S. Ever notice how women are never described as “smart”? Could it be because being smart doesn’t bear on her serviceableness to her family? No, they only care that she was warm, would laugh at your lame ass jokes, and was pretty. Families suck the life out of their women, don’t they?

4. Never, ever, use the word grace. Another quote from another obit: “An artist and teacher of exceptional talent, heart, generosity, and grace.” Let’s never mind the listing of adjectives — let’s figure out “grace”. It’s a word that sounds a lot as if it means something, but what does it mean??? Does it mean she had good manners? Does it mean that she lent people money happily? Could it mean that she kept a vase of flowers in her desk? Does it mean that she only cursed in French? Or could it mean that she could actually disappear into the astral plane and do housework for the less fortunate? We’ll never know because we don’t know what “grace” specifically pertains to, so it’s a word that doesn’t mean anything.

 

Now, about Rolly’s obit: I knew Rolly for 40+ years, and I knew what stories he re-told and those were the ones (and characters) he wold want included re: mom’s bacon sandwiches and his uncle the Atlantic City bookie. I also knew that walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at age 86  fulfilled a life-time dream of his, and in fact the photo we used the top of his obit (and it costs extra) was one I took of Rolly ON the Brooklyn Bridge:

Uncle Rolly with my brother Jimmy on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Old friends and business associates of Rolly’s called me up to say how much they really liked the obit I wrote, so I can happily say that the obit portrayed Rolly very much in the way that those who knew him longest and best knew him.  His ad agency, in its official press release of Rolly’s passing, used bits if this obit so, yeah, if you’re plagiarized you’re doing something right.

The one thing I left out was the fact that Rolly was a widower. Rolly truly loved his wife, Naomi, and maybe he would have wanted her mentioned but I didn’t put her in the obit because her two kids (Rolly’s step children who he helped raise and financially support well into adulthood) had, by unanimous family opinion, been real shits during the later years of Rolly’s life and I wanted to spite them, wipe them completely out of the record. And truthfully, Naomi was kind of bitchy. So, yeah, we survivors have the final word so if you don’t want that to happen, WRITE YOUR OWN OBIT!!

You know the most famous obituary story,don’t you? About the rich businessman who was mistakenly obitted (yeah, I made that up, and isn’t it brilliant???) and he, reading this premature obit, realized that he didn’t want to be remembered for having the world’s biggest dynamite factory so he funded philanthropic awards in his name and that’s how Alfred Nobel is now mostly known for his Prize. So maybe writing your own obit will reveal a life’s mission, or not. You never know.

My last belief about writing obits is that you shouldn’t do it on a rainy day (too dispiriting, and suicide notes never count) so I won’t be writing my Last Word today. Or tomorrow, from what I hear on the forecast, even though I am close to being bored to death with this crappy RAIN. (Note to self: Obit should mention She did not like rainy days.)

If you are going to Comment below — and I desperately hope you do — please include the one adjective that you’d most like to have in your obit.

I am sending out my biggest hopes to all you Dear Readers that, wherever you are this weekend, you are neither soggy nor shivering. I wish you the warmth of love and the comfort of soft blankies which I hope are made of warm breezes and starry rays of light. And most of all, I hope you feel especially alive.

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