I’m of a certain age where I am more likely to be sitting on the back row at a funeral than reprising the Macarena at a wedding.
I’m also old enough to have a cultivated regard for how things ought to be—or, as likely, ought not be—so I rarely leave a funeral feeling that the departed’s interests have been well served. I am more often left mumbling to myself about the imperative of scripting my own. The same is true for obituaries.
An obituary is arguably one of life’s most important documents, yet I rarely find one in The Salt Lake Tribune or The New York Times that measures up. To my mind, an obituary should be thoughtful—perhaps even instructive—its form and substance reflective of a singular life lately concluded. An obituary needn’t have an elegiac quality, but I think it must be more than a collection of cold, genealogical fact. Too many are formulaic summaries in which the deceased has wed “the love of his life,” “fought a valiant and courageous battle” with disease, and died “peacefully surrounded by his loving family.” While all that may be accurate, the words are so worn out that they trivialize what would otherwise be important details. And humor is as rare as a first-person pronoun.
That obituaries are not all that they could be is easy to understand. They are born of crisis. Grieving families, confronted by urgent need to write an obituary, naturally turn to a published one as a template. How much better it would be if everyone got a head start. An entire industry has grown up around planning life’s end game—insurance, trusts, living wills and the like—so why not elevate the obituary to prominence in all of that paper?
I intend to write my own—and soon. I’m going to use first person instead of third. “The perpendicular pronoun” is more personal, more authentic, I think. An obituary by a likeminded fellow ran in The Salt Lake Tribune recently. “Unfortunately the day has come for me to say ‘farewell and thank you’ to everyone who has impacted my life so greatly,” he wrote. “Instead of sadness, celebrate the wonderful life I have lived.” Writing in the first person overcomes the inherent problem of the passive voice as manifest in such awkward constructions as “he will be greatly missed.” Hamlet’s reflection on his late, childhood friend illustrates the point. “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him … a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” loses its poignancy in the passive, “Alas, poor Yorick, known for his good humor and imagination.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to tone, I will take my cue from Art Buchwald instead of William Shakespeare. I smiled appreciatively when I read the obituary of a dowager whose death presaged the end of the cocktail hour at her assisted-living facility in Salt Lake City. And from the The New York Times, this gem: “Beryl Feinglass died Dec. 25, at home in Petaluma. … She was 70. We hope she is partying with James Brown.”
It’s the details that make the difference. They define us as human beings. When I ponder which details of my life are most illustrative, my preference for wool socks, red wine and the folk songs of Bill Staines come to mind. I do think an unflattering detail adds balance, credibility and a dash of wry humor to an obituary. I could say that despite thousands of hours of tennis, my backhand volley remained pathetic to the end. My penchant for profanity, on and off the court, might also fit.
Where to begin? The first paragraph is the toughest to write. Richard Nichols, who died in Salt Lake City in March, got his obituary off to a good start: “This is not an ordinary obituary because the man whose life it celebrates is no ordinary man.” I hope to do as well.
How much to write? As much as it takes. Nevertheless, as in life, money is a consideration. Obituaries aren’t free. The average one in the Tribune costs $375 (although I saw a three-column one in February that must have run upwards of $2,000), and the The New York Times charges $50 a line. That puts a different slant on E.B. White’s axiom of good writing: one word is always better than two. To write “died suddenly” or “died unexpectedly” is going to cost $10 just for the useless adverb. Even at the Tribune’s bargain rate of $4-plus per line, the cost of the worn-out words adds up fast, so a little cost-benefit analysis will result in streamlined prose and structure. For example, is it worth $50 to include the “preceded in death” paragraph that is in vogue in Salt Lake City? Or $25 to enumerate the same church callings that everyone else has had? Eliminating both makes sense to me.
It will take many drafts to get my obituary to say exactly what I want. I hope I’ve got the time. Once it’s finished, I may be tempted to try my hand at an epitaph. To write something epigrammatic is harder than writing a sonnet, but I’ll take Johnny Carson’s choice of epitaphs as my inspiration: “I’ll be right back.”
“Mullen” will be back next week.