Some Thoughts on That Viral Obit

Yesterday morning at about 5:30 I talked to NPR's Here & Now about an obituary making headlines. You would have laughed to see me with the cell phone in one hand, the landline in the other, wearing pajamas, sitting on the bed in the kids' playroom (More soft surfaces for better sound quality, plus it's furthest away from my husband's morning exercises and the beach with its potential for barking dogs.)

 Here's the brief interview. 

I have a lot more to say about what makes an obituary good after a second cup of coffee. An obit is about its subject, and his or her life. The more detail the better. Cause of death for starters: heart failure is truer than rising to heaven on angel wings. Mr. Rogers didn’t tell viewers that dogs were put to sleep, because he worried little children would be scared to go to bed.

In the obituary making all the news, we learn that Kathleen Dehmlow (80) was born in 1938,  married in 1957, had two children, and in 1962 became pregnant with her husband’s brother’s child and moved to California. Her parents reared the children from the first marriage. In conclusion, her now adult children note that the world is a better place without their mother.

That’s it. No updates since 1962.  

What was Kathleen's story? Where did she live? Work? Hobbies? Family? Did she prefer dogs or cats? Bach or (Garth) Brooks? Learn Spanish at 65 and travel to Madrid? Protect her bird feeders from squirrels with a BB gun? 

Personally, I am so sorry for the deep grief and anger in the family that is now exposed for the world to see. Decades passed with no reconciliation. Think about that for a minute.

As an obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News, I do my best to capture the truth and the essence of a life. This one, I believe, was written and most importantly-- paid for by the family, and thus more commentary than a traditional obituary. To compare it to a New York Times or CVN obit is apples to oranges. (Not that a family member  or friend can’t write a great one, that happens all the time.) 
A good obituary shouldn't make someone out to be a saint. I have a feeling St. Francis himself would insist that he wasn’t so special, or deserving of his title. 

And since I'm also mourning Anthony Bourdain, here's how he (more or less) said what I mean:

Just because someone is miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious, and corrupt shouldn't prevent you from enjoying their company, or finding them entertaining. 

We are not all poets like Emily Dickinson, but the truth is always written with a slant. When I read a good obituary, at best, I wish I had known the subject of it better. At least, it delivers a cautionary tale. Many offer up a little of both. Most obituaries these days are priced per word. Choose them carefully. They matter.


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