How to say Farewell
Sedgewick Smedley wrote us the other day to get our slant on how what makes for a good obituary. The obituary section of the newspaper is the first one he reads with his morning coffee. It is the topic that Sedgewick obsesses over in that he is quite aware that his age group- eighty and over – dominates the obituary listings most every day. He is also quite relieved when his name doesn’t show up.
What bothers Smedley about the conventional obituary is the lack of specific information. He would like to know, for example, why the cause of death is rarely mentioned. Only once in a while are we told that such and such died “after a long battle with cancer.” Another cause that is mentioned but only occasionally is “that Alvin died in an accident” – and this type of disclosure occurs only in the below fifty age group. There are infrequent clues as to the cause of death hidden at the end of the obituary where memorials are listed with suggested recipients such as The Alzheimer Association, The American Cancer Society, and the like – giving pretty clear picture as to the cause of death. Most memorials, however – which are found in only about one of ten obituaries – and they mention primarily churches, a few charities, and an occasional cemetery, but nothing related to the cause of death.
Smedley believes that the obituary section could be made the most interesting and well read sections of the newspaper if more details were given as to the cause of death. Wouldn’t you like to know if the deceased got hit by a car and did the police find the guy who ran him over? Or if he(she) got shot climbing out a motel window? Or that he was pushed over a cliff by his recent bride? Or poisoned by his wife of 65 years? How bad was the cancer or the heart attack? Did they suffer a long time or was it quick death? Did they die at home? What were their last words? After all, you are reading a newspaper which is suppose to tell the whole story, so bring it on – warts and all!
Another area that needs fleshing out is the telling of what actually happened. There are several over-used phrases, dry as a bone that give no romance or pizzaz to the second biggest day in a person’s life. (Birth day is number one, with Death day a close second.) The most frequently used phrases are, “…died Saturday,” or “….died March 15th.” Substitute “passed”, or “passed away”, or “departed” or “departed this life (or world)” for “died” and that is all you get – no explanations, no riveting stories, nothing! C’mon! Death is got to be more exciting than “died” or “passed”. For instance, did the dying person see an angel by his bedside? Did he hear the voice of his granny calling to him? Was there a dark force hovering about? This is he stuff of a person’s Death Day. We need to know this – and it makes for good reading.
One final void in the obituaries which needs more information is where the deceased is going after his final curtain, his last breath. Some obituaries reveal that the gone one “……is now in the arms of his faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Or she”…went peacefully to sleep in the arms of her Savior.” Or she “…went to be with her Lord.” This is good info, but it is mentioned only in about one out of ten obituaries. How about the atheist – did he depart to nowhere? Or the agnostic -he’s not sure where he’s going? Or the Yoga guy – is he going to Karma Land and what will he come back as – rat, swan, who knows? The newspaper should not leave its readers hanging, not knowing the end of the story.
Finally, all people leaving this planet as noted in the obituary section deserve to have a flattering picture accompanying their obituary. It really is dehumanizing to have the routine free obituary which allows only a maximum of fifty words and no picture. Every one has a story that needs to be told, so man up! newspaper editor, and tell all the stories and not just the ones the relatives pay for. And make sure that the accompanying picture is a good one showing how the person looked on their best day, not one showing tubes coming out of their nose taken at their very last birthday laying on a gurney outside the emergency room.