Tuesday, August 18, 2009

vaguely redundant

It's vexing, really, how every obituary begins with Gladys Louise Smith* passed away/died/met her Savior/fell into eternal rest. Isn't the very purpose of an obituary to announce a death? To open a death announcement restating the fact is pretty obviously redundant.

But that's not the worst of it.

Oh no. Then one has to read through the entire obituary searching for the little clues that might reveal what one really wants to know when reading the obituary in the first place.

When someone has a baby the first question is: Was it a boy or a girl? (Birth announcments are perfectly clear on relaying good information.)

What's the first question on your mind when someone dies?
Yep. "How?"

That's right, we all want to know how they died. That's the real story, isn't it? It's the information that guides our condolences, prods our compassion, helps us navigate our emotions about the person's death. But obituaries are frustratingly vague on this point. I've read all the way through to the end of them to read "The Fawcett family would like to thank Dr. Olson and the staff at Merryfield Hospice." A cross-reference in the yellow pages tells me that Dr. Olson is an oncologist so then finally do I have the information I'm looking for. It simply should NOT be that hard.

Would it kill people** to write clear, informative obituaries? Green Girl in Wisconsin had a brain aneurysm February 25. Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head on April 14. Upfront, easy to understand, and quite appropriately informative. It's Journalism 101, really. Who, what, when, where and HOW. The foundation of every well-constructed and thorough piece of news. Obituaries should read no differently--which makes me wonder how they ended up so sloppy these days. Go here to read some examples of how obituary writers kicked it Old School back in 1893.

* Bonus points if you know who this famous dead person is popularly known as.
** Well, if it would, then I imagine we'd have even more obituaries to write. Jack B. Nimble died of stress trying to write an obituary for his deceased mother.


  1. I've thought the same thing. I wonder why people don't explain it?

  2. I know who is Gladys Louise Smith, but I won't say and ruin it for the rest of the class because I may or may not have Googled.


  3. I love to read obituaries- And I wish people would always add how the person died.
    What I even find more interesting is the "stuff" people find important to add to the obit. Such as Aunt Louise loved Suduko- Really that is so important in someone's life to mention?

    Also, we are friends with the local funeral directors in town and the one thing they HATE is when every grandchild and spouse and every great grandchild and spouse plus where they live have to be published. Why? ...it takes too long to type

  4. My neighbor from three moves ago had to write the obit for her grandmother last week. She did a fantastic job not only relaying the "information" everyone wants to know, but describing her gm's life.

    I think when family writes the obit, sometimes writing "died after 10 years struggling with brain cancer" is just too harsh, too personal, too soon to be matter of fact. All us outside observers want the specifics but the family just wants to personalize the death.

  5. You are sooo "write" but it's hard to focus at those times :(

  6. Oh, plus my Dad used to read the obits every morning and I'd say, "You're kinda creepy Dad."

    He'd say, "Every time I see my name's not in there - it's going to be a good day."


  7. I agree with Heidi. The only time I've really seen the cause of death listed was when it was unexpected. Keep in mind that obits are written by grieving relatives. They're not always in the frame of mind to create great literature.

    With that said, I prefer the kinds of obituaries that talk a lot about the life of the person. Especially for older people. It's easy to loose sight of what amazing lives people have lived. My grandmother died a couple of weeks ago at age 94, and when I stop to think about how much she lived *through* and the amazing things she did, especially as a young woman, I am floored.

    That's the stuff that should be in an obituary. Like, she was a competitive swimmer. She won the 1959 All-city Foxtrot competition. She raised her four younger brothers and sisters. He knew every inch of his Nash Rambler and rebuilt the engine twice. He taught all his grandchildren to play baseball. She made the best lemon merengue pie. His favorite movie was The Maltese Falcon.

    If it were up to me, all those little details would be there to drink up. They paint a picture of a life well-lived.

  8. The most important thing to me in an obituary is a sense of the person's "essence." I have written two obituaries that were wonderful in this regard, but it takes words to do this and the more words you use the more money it costs. I happen to think it is worth $300 to memorialize someone properly, but I don't think everyone agrees with me.

  9. Heidi's point about why obituaries are not more specific is excellent. I think that death is very hard for all of us to face, so spelling out the details (or even simply stating the cause) is so very difficult.

    A couple of years ago, a family at our school was faced with the unexpected death of the father, who had committed suicide. In that case, I am glad that the obituary was vague, as no one needs to know the particulars of such a sad situation.

  10. Here is the obituary I wrote for my own mom..."...Nancy 505

    Nancy 505, age 67, and a resident of Nowhere, NM, passed peacefully from this world on the morning of July 3rd, 2007.

    Nancy graduated from Oklahoma State University with a Bachelor's degree in math and chemistry. An accomplished artist and designer, she owned a successful stained glass gallery in Denver Colorado until 1999, when she came to New Mexico and continued to draw and paint. Her lifelong love of cats led her to become an advocate for animal rescue.

    She is preceded in death by her parents, Perry and Louise, of DustyTown, Texas, and survived by her loving companion of 15 years, The Dyke; a daughter, Hope 505 of Art City, NM; a sister, Heinous Bitch, of Redneck, Texas and a brother, Black Sheep, of Cowtown, Texas.

    Memorial contributions in her name may be made ...in honor of her beloved cat Checkers.

    Her bright heart and selfless compassion brought happiness and comfort to all whose lives she touched. "

    People generally don't explain the cause of death because they are usually in too much pain and grief...the world seems cruel enough with the loss of a loved one.

    You don't want to write: "Jim Cooke died from a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound to the brain."...or..."Helen Rivers starved to death voluntarily after removing her feeding tube. She had been diagnosed with AIDS."

    You want to offer some dignity and honor with your words...you don't want to unnecessarily upset the more sensitive readers who may have vivid imaginations...it isn't pleasant to imagine the suffering of others.

  11. I'm not a big fan of the euphemistic obit, but our relatives are rather insistent on their use. The ones that give a bit of a memorial are rather nice though.

  12. The one that gets me is "suddenly" - it can mean anything from suicide to car accident.
    When my dad died, I was shocked at the cost of the obits. I created a long and short version; long for emailing, short for the paper.

  13. I totally agree! I also hate it when someone dies in their 80s and puts a picture on their obit from when they were in their 40s, or even younger. Haven't they had their picture taken in the last 40 years?~

  14. you really wanna see that, greeneyedmom? Octogenarians with liverspots, bad teeth and tubes hanging out of their orifices? What, a hospital shot?

    A good rule of thumb is to choose a picture that you feel the decedent would also like and find flattering.

  15. I have always thought the same thing, but then I would feel guilty about being so nosy. What business of it is mine. Of course I still want to know.

  16. "short illness" "long illness"


  17. "In lieu of flowers a donation to..." always helps the curious reader. I really do want to know the cause of death as I see people my age or younger.

  18. As a funeral director who regularly drafts obituaries,I understand your curiosity. However, many families prefer not to give out the cause of death for two very good reasons-
    First, many families prefer the focus of the obituary to be on the life and impact of the deceased, rather than on the situation that ended the life. Secondly, the cause of death in some cases is a very personal and perhaps delicate matter. The family will be only too glad to tell you what their loved died from if they are comfortable doing so. If they are not,don't ask; it could be complications from substance abuse, suicide or something else that the family would rather the public didn't know. The bottom line is that the cause of death is the family's business and no one else's. I am often asked, by friends and neighbors of the deceased, the cause of a person's death, and must decline to do so out of respect for the family's privacy

  19. I scan the age first. If they are my age or younger THEN I look for HOW.

  20. I have often wondered about this, too. I just read a sad obituary today of a 20 year old kid. I was nearly 2/3 of a newspaper column in length. It mentioned "a long battle" twice. The nosey part of me (who is not related to this kid nor do I know his parents) wants to know what the battle was.

  21. I am always curious about the cause of death too. I've read both of your posts on this subject and you are right on about the fact that we try to pretend that death is an aberration that can, and must, be prevented at all costs. When my mom was dying her doctors seriously believed that the best thing we could do for her was to blast her brain with high doses of radiation in order to extend her life by thirty days. Thirty freaking days of misery. When she went over to hospice, her oncologist went into a sulk, but it was *such* a relief to me to talk to the Hospice doctor who treated death as the natural and expected end of all human life. We can't escape it, and while that is a scary thought, it's comforting to remember that we're all in this together.


Spill it, reader.