On the Changing Nature of the Obituary

by Mary Kay Shanley

  • Essay
decorative header image from Volume V Issue 1 · Fall 2018

I spied the tee-shirt amidst a plethora of choices online one evening while looking for a gag gift for one of our adult children. I’ve never been much of a tee-shirt person myself, believing that one’s chest and back serve higher purposes than sending messages via a cotton sandwich board. Although, to be honest, I did buy myself a t-shirt the first day of each of my 17 RAGBRAIs. They’ve become badges of accomplishment albeit a little ragged from the wear. Curiously, this particular tee-shirt I stumbled upon spoke to me in an ethereal manner. Connecting with whatever spirituality I harbor someplace or another within my being. A deeply personal spirituality that didn’t manifest itself until the kids left home and I finally had time to think. This tee-shirt’s message was simple:

so far, so good

I knew immediately and innately that I must own it. Machine wash, warm, inside out with like colors. Only non-chlorine bleach. Tumble dry medium. Do not iron. Do not dry clean.

By the time I had wandered into my 50s, the notion that I might live forever (and ever) had quietly emerged from somewhere, taking on form and substance. I acknowledged its quirky presence, neither discouraging such a possibility nor questioning why I might be the exception. Rather, I’ve always tended toward a come-what-may approach. If it works, fine. If not, okay. There are other paths all over the place, just waiting to be trod. Which paths we choose, which direction we go now, which direction we go later, blend in to become our personal footprints in the sand. And while the elements—wind, rain, water, snow—sooner or later erase physical footprints, the history of who we are, where we come from, what we accomplish and, ultimately, what we leave behind, melds into the universe.

For a very long while now, we humans have been packaging up our past, putting bits and pieces of our decades into sentences and paragraphs to become obituaries for the newspaper and the funeral home, for family, friends, and for posterity. Having the last word, so to speak. And for so many reasons, that is extremely important.

The obituary dates back to the early 16th century, its journey to now riding a wave of rich history. An obit is not a biography; that’s an account of someone’s life and is written by another person. Nor is the obituary an autobiography; that’s an account of someone’s life written by the person who’s living it—obviously up to a certain point. Nor is it a memoir; that’s an historical account or biography one writes from personal knowledge or special sources. It tends more toward the story-telling vein.

Obituaries, gathered collectively and over time, embody our historical journey as a people, as well as our personal family history. From these “short stories” we can come to appreciate the roles generations have played in our past.

The word “obituary” comes from the Latin obit, meaning death. Brief announcements of death were published in America as early as the 16th century. But not until the 19th century, and following a lead from the British, our obits became more detailed accounts, appearing with regularity in the press.

Photo by Emily Mamrak

Photo by Emily Mamrak

At the time of the Civil War, obituaries for soldiers often included sentiment and religious overtones. This is also when embalming began to find favor because it meant bodies would arrive home intact. Toward the end of the century, “death journalism” emerged. Obituaries in both England and the United States focused on the graphic and often morbid details of the person’s death, a trend that continued into the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901–1909, died in his sleep at age 60. His obituary in The New York Times led with an elaborate description of the blood clot that “detached itself from a vein and entered the lungs.”

For a short while, obituaries in verse form had their day in the sun. Consider “A Tribute to Guy Swain,” a Delaware, Ohio, man who fell to his death while trying to chase a raccoon from his tree one night:

A precious one is gone,

A voice we loved is still,

A place is vacant in our home

Which never can be filled.

O Guy, it seemed so bad,

The way you had to go.

It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that obituaries began to routinely recognize ordinary people as well as the aristocracy. I’m in the “ordinary” category, and probably most of you are as well. Because of this shift to us everyday people, anybody can die and the obit can appear in the newspaper.

Initially, these obituaries included a notice of death, an account of the person’s life and information about the upcoming funeral. A family member either submitted that information to the funeral home or filled out a form provided by the funeral home. This was then sent to the newspaper office where a professional journalist—almost always a cub reporter—wrote the obituary and a professional proofreader checked it for errors. In the Des Moines Register’s newsroom, for example, this good-to-go copy then traveled to the composing room, then on to the pressroom. Mistakes were almost non-existent.

The latest winds of change, as far as obituaries are concerned, have been fanned by Social Media’s penchant for putting everything on the table.

I launched my journalism career in 1965, at the Register. Back then, the only newspaper in the United States with more Pulitzers was the New York Times. Heady stuff, but new hires were still newbies. Gals wrote weddings, engagements and club news; guys wrote weather, obits and entries from the police blotter. For about a year, actually. After that, if you were still upright and mobile, you could stop worrying about getting axed by the managing editor and start writing real articles.

The latest winds of change, as far as obituaries are concerned, have been fanned by Social Media’s penchant for putting everything on the table. Dubbed the “Personalized Obituary,” they’re now written by a family member, a friend or even the deceased person, obviously ahead of time. Funeral homes, as well as the Internet, provide a plethora of information and assistance. Today, factual information, as well as insights into the life of the deceased, have become the norm. Once written, obituaries are sent directly to the newspaper’s advertising department for layout and design. Nobody proofs what you’ve written so no errors are corrected before press time. Hence, people: be meticulous with your submissions.

Another change: When we “regular folks” began writing our family obituaries, the first eight lines were often free-of-charge. That’s not the case anymore, so caveat emptor. Know cost-per-word for copy and cost-per-size of photo. The obituary has become a reliable source of income for newspapers.

That said, for some people, paying for even a short obituary can become a huge issue. Funeral directors may suggest the family run only the Basic Death Notice in the local newspaper. Then, the family may post a more comprehensive obituary on the funeral home’s website. Funeral homes generally pay to have their logo and website included with these obituaries, so the family may not incur any costs.

With the increasing popularity of social media in the early 2000s, news organizations began selling obituaries to online sites such as legacy.com, the largest commercial provider of on-line memorials—probably in the universe, but I haven’t checked. Even if no funeral is looming large in your family’s near future, look at legacy’s homepage. It’s a mini-magazine of stuff to read: how to write an obituary that will preserve your loved one’s life in story—how to prepare for a traditional Muslim burial—an opportunity to search for obituaries by newspaper—remembering Andrew Wyeth on his 100th birthday. The offerings, like the Internet itself, are endless.

In case you haven’t noticed, Social Media has also conditioned us to share information with complete strangers. Hence, sites like obitkit.com. Its creator Susan Soper says, “We’re more open and apt to have a sense of humor rather than denial about death. People want to celebrate someone for who they are, not for some cookie-cutter person.”

Some obituaries still fit into the proper constraints of etiquette. Others wander outside those lines which, truth be told, can be downright entertaining.

And Social Media have conditioned us to laugh out loud. In 2007, Multimedia Tributes posted a video-obituary from the New York Times that included an “appearance” by the newly deceased Art Buchwald, a Washington Post columnist and a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. In the first frame of the video, the 81-year-old humorist addressed viewers with a giant grin and said, “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”

On to the more serious side of the form, Portraits: 9/11/01: The Collected “Portraits of Grief” from the New York Times emerged from superior reporting. Three days after the attack, a half-dozen Times reporters began working from a stack of 100 missing person fliers collected from points around the World Trade Center site. They crafted profiles—stories containing short but signature details of the lives they strove to present. The portraits transcend race, class and gender lines, telling stories of the old and the young, praising their individuality while cutting through their differences to capture the poignancy of their shared similarity: life cut short in an American tragedy. Eventually, “Portraits” grew to more than 1,800 profiles.

Today, the obituary’s format is as loose or as tight as the family sees fit. Some obituaries still fit into the proper constraints of etiquette. Others wander outside those lines and, truth be told, can be downright entertaining. Consider the following:

When retired wood-plant manager in Klamath Falls, Oregon, died, his grandson wrote the obituary. The young man included comments about Mr. Brockey’s penchant for ordering gadgets and clothing touted by TV pitchmen on the QVC cable shopping network: “QVC lost a loyal customer on Sept. 28, 2016.”

After Allen Lee Franklin died in a motorcycle accident in Virginia, his brother included this in the obit: “His family constantly warned him about the dangers of riding motorcycles, but he was incredibly stubborn. Allen was a wonderful young man and was loved by everyone he met, despite his incessant need to argue with anyone about everything. He was probably the biggest tightwad in the Mid-Atlantic Region.”

Dan A. Wilson of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, died in June 2017. He’d already written his own obituary, obviously in first person. It was full of one-liners: “I crammed a four-year education into seven years.” And: “Morningside College is a Methodist school where I was forced to go to the chapel every week, take one religious course each semester for two years. The religion nearly turned me into an atheist”. And: “There will be no internment [sic] since I’m going to be cremated. If you want to see me, you have to come by the house where Donna will have me displayed somewhere.”

Whoever wrote the obit for David Schlang of Scottsdale, Arizona, lauded the man for his generosity and athleticism, also mentioning that he was a bit of a pack rat. “He left behind a lot of stuff that his wife and daughters have no idea what to do with. So, if you’re in the market for golf clubs, golf balls, general sporting equipment, random electronics, CDs, cassettes and LPs, you should wait an appropriate amount of time, and then get in touch with us.”

After Noah Sagan of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, died of a drug overdose, his mother was determined to pay tribute to her son’s sarcastic humor thus: “He loved the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing videogames, our dog Lizzy, and chicken. He hated lifting weights, but did it anyway, then had a cigarette.”

Readers learn not only what a person did but also who the person was. Such information-based storytelling weaves a sense of the local public into our history.

Then there’s Bill Maurer’s obituary. Bill was managing editor of the Des Moines Tribune and co-managing editor of the Des Moines Register. His 2011 obit was written by friend Michael Gartner who has been Page One Editor of the Wall Street Journal and, later, editor and president of the Des Moines Register. Michael opened the obit thus: “Bill Maurer’s goal was to live to be 113. He didn’t make it.”

Robin Kline of Des Moines, Iowa, a culinary professional, crafted her 95-year-old mother’s obituary. I’d never met her mother, but after reading the obit, I knew the woman by the passages:

“Irene grew up on the diversified family dairy farm, baking pies for threshing crews, gathering eggs from the hen house and every autumn helping butcher and process hogs and making gallons of apple butter for the family table.

“In college she became skilled in the campus bakery, and fondly remembered making doughnuts for student breakfasts in the wee hours of the morning.”

“When she and her husband moved to Chicago, she enjoyed discovering the adventures of the metropolis especially the many different ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants that offered new flavors, dishes and cuisine.”

“Later, she led a team of foods teachers, introduced international foods classes to students and broke with tradition by teaching boys’ food preparation classes.”

With this approach, readers learn not only what a person did but also who the person was. Such information-based storytelling weaves a sense of the local public into our history.

And recently, a friend shared that when her nephew, J. T. Sleyster, a college student in Wisconsin, died by suicide, there was no obituary. Within 12 hours of his death, the word was out on Facebook. “The first post I saw was, ‘Rest in Peace, J.T.’,” his mother, Ann Wheeler of South Carolina, recalls. “That post showed up on my Facebook page because I was Facebook friends with my son. But it wasn’t me who saw that post first.”

After seeing the numerous posts about his death, with people asking for more information about the service, two days later the family posted information about what had happened, followed with a post requesting photos for a video. The final post provided information about the visitation and funeral, including a request that people wear flannels to the service since J.T. grew up in Minnesota.

“I do wish, now, that there would have been an obituary, too,” Ann says. “You want some of that tactile information to remain. But it just went so fast.” Two more points to consider. First, until recently, including cause-of-death was required for publication. Not so today, although I believe a solid argument for inclusion remains. For example, the 1997 obituary for Orville Marlow, from Perry, Iowa, listed cause of death as complications of Parkinson’s disease. In fact, the funeral director’s wife had been passionate about including the information. Since Mr. Marlow had run a gas station during part of his career, she wondered about a possible link between his work and Parkinson’s. She thought such information in his obituary might be useful for research purposes.

Back when Mr. Marlow had been diagnosed, his children asked the neurologist about hereditary factors with Parkinson’s. The doctor had thought that wasn’t likely. Some years after his death, though, the family learned that Mr. Marlow was likely part of a “cluster,” as three of his cousins had Parkinson’s as well. Recently, his son-in-law, a genealogist, found an obituary for Mr. Marlow’s half-brother, whom the family had never been aware of before. He, too, had died of Parkinson’s. Such historical knowledge for future generations is lost without including cause of death in an obituary.

Also to consider: Obituaries have the power to make public statements. In 2017, Ethan Sergei Neubauer, 19, of Urbandale, Iowa, took his life after struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD and survivor’s guilt related to a tumultuous childhood in Russia. His (adopted) mother who, years before, had worked for the Associated Press, wrote a powerful obituary detailing the journey of Sergei’s short life. He’d first met Mary and dad Larry Loss through Camp Hope when he visited Iowa as a youngster. The couple joyfully adopted him. Sergei thought Mary to be very tall and found Larry’s hair to be quite white, but they seemed nice, laughed a lot and had great dogs. Sergei played soccer, lifted weights, loved nature, graduated from high school, and was interested in psychology and social work. He was able to mask his own pain by keeping the focus on others as well. At the end of the obituary, Mary made a public plea for policymakers to recognize the toll of mental illness caused by legislative underfunding. The obit concluded with four messages to others who struggle with the disease:

  1. If you need help, ask for it.
  2. Seek to build others up, not tear them down.
  3. Avoid drama. It does no good.
  4. Recognize small moments of joy, for they happen all the time.

Peggy Huppert, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, sees Neubauer as a shining example of someone who turned personal tragedy into social change. “Less than six months after Mary Neubauer wrote the obituary,” Huppert says, “she was standing beside the Governor at the bill signing ceremony for a major mental health policy bill she’d helped pass.”

So, back to my tee-shirt. It is comforting to know that, overall, life really is “so far, so good.” That said, let me note that I never want to hold the record for being the world’s oldest living person. According to the Gerontology Research Group, right now that record belongs to Violet Brown, a 117-year-old Jamaican woman. Nicknamed “Aunt V,” she and her husband worked as cane farmers, and Violet credits that hard work during her younger years for her longevity. She was baptized 104 years ago, has a 97-year-old son and has been going to church for more than a century.

“I feel good, I feel happy to be the oldest person (in the world),” Brown told the Jamaica Observer. “I did not feel I would become the oldest person; I feel I would pass long ago. Thank God for whatever He has given to me.”

In today’s sometimes contentious world, Violet’s positive comments are laced with grace and wisdom. And that’s enough for me. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

About Author Mary Kay Shanley
Portrait image of author Mary Kay Shanley.
Mary Kay Shanley began her career with the Des Moines Register back in the day when you rubbed shoulders with Pulitzer Prize winners. She moved from there to the world of books, including one best-seller. An Iowa Author of the Year, Mary Kay teaches in the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival and is a Humanities Iowa presenter. Also, she and Diane Douiyssi co-lead reflective writing retreats.