The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 7, 2014

Obituary can tell life story — good and bad, fun or not

By John Blankenship

— Dying is no laughing matter. But I can’t help wondering what I should include in my obituary: the humor and the care required to tell my final story in print.

An editor asked me recently if I had my personal history on file in the library, which we call the morgue. “That way we won’t have to go digging if something should happen,” she explained. Does she know something I don’t?

In a small but growing number of newspapers, obituaries are no longer just dull pieces written by green reporters or tired old-timers who seem to be copying from a funeral register.

Now, obituaries are among the best written, most informative stories in newspapers nationwide. More important, they now seek to give a true picture of the dead person’s life, touching on the bad as well as the good.

Some high-quality obituary writers regularly interview aging notables and prepare their eulogies in advance. Some even set these tributes in type, but others don’t. A few editors apparently consider it bad luck for the person being probed on such matters.

If I were being queried for my obituary notice, I think I would be flattered. After all, we’re all going to die some day; so, why not welcome the opportunity to chat about our life experiences while we’re still around.

I would want to place some value on it and point up what I think is essential — or what I want to be remembered for. Besides, some of us like to see our names in print anyway — but that doesn’t mean we sit around waiting to die.

Unfortunately, when most people get close to death’s dark foyer, they’ve pretty much had it with life, so to speak. Their outlook is “I won’t be able to read it when it runs, and I’m not interested in reading it now.”

I think some of those suffering souls just want to get life over with; they would prefer their obit to be short and sweet, or at least to the point.

Some papers are so immense in circulation that they run obituaries on only 2 to 20 percent of the people who die in their cities. If a laborer dies at 99, or jumps off the top of a skyscraper, they’re interested.

But if a man just dies in bed of cirrhosis of the liver or of some other mundane medical ailment, they’re usually not as keen for an opus on his passing.

Many smaller papers try to run obituaries on everyone who dies in their circulation areas, but these honors are often just token attempts that don’t even tell the cause of death.

Cancer kills one of six Americans. But small papers often refer to the disease only as a “lingering illness” or with some other euphemism, primarily because relatives don’t like to disclose that a person died of cancer.

While some relatives don’t want to list the cause of death, others are leery of listing the address of the deceased. There’s a good reason for that. Obituaries and paid death notices are among the best read parts of a paper, and the readers include burglars who like to pay their respects by visiting the home of the dead person during the funeral. Likewise, real estate agents also are avid readers of obituaries, hoping to find a widow who wants to sell her home.

Ernest Hemmingway lived to see his obituary printed. He was seriously injured in two plane crashes in Africa in 1953 and was twice reported dead. Several newspapers ran their praises of the American novelist before the news that he hadn’t yet departed reached them.

“Most of the obituaries I could never have written nearly as well myself,” Hemmingway reportedly joked afterward.

Some people actually have the chance to write their own obit. An aging friend of mine did just that before he succumbed a few years ago. I was asked to add a flourish to his final commentary, which I was honored to do. But it was a sad thing.

I wonder if my obit will make page one. I doubt it, but I hope it carries my byline.

It will probably begin with something like this: “I died late yesterday afternoon on my veranda while smoking a Havana cigar.”

No pictures please.

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— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald.