As a young advertising salesperson in Sioux City, one of my clients was a local nursing home and, on this day, I had an appointment with the administrator. Having arrived at the care center early for an 8 a.m. appointment, the receptionist asked me to have a seat in the solarium.
Not yet 30 at the time, I felt out of place sitting in a room full of nursing home residents whom I considered to be very old people. Most were reading that morning’s Sioux City Journal. I could hear the residents chatting but wasn’t sure what they were talking about.
“Anyone you know?”
“Nope. How about you?”
“Nope… no one.”
Finally, it dawned on me. These folks were scanning the obituary pages of the newspaper for names of acquaintances that had died. In my late 20s that seemed creepy but at age 75 I read the obits every day, always relieved when I don’t find my name.
Back in those days obituaries were published at no charge but the editorial department retained a strong degree of control over how obits were written. These controls were frequent points of contention for survivors who wanted an obituary to say more than the newspaper policies allowed.
Some of the most difficult customer-service matters I dealt with in my years in the newspaper business concerned the content of obituaries. As an old newsman, I always looked at obituaries as news items. As Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet fame always said, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Not everyone agreed.
Nowadays a family can say whatever they wish about the deceased with most newspapers charging for the obituary. As a result, obits have changed.
In some cases, a family-written obituary is better than the strictly formatted obits of yesterday. I read an obituary recently that led me to think, “I wish I had known that person.”
I have also read obituaries so effusive I expected to read, “… and Mother routinely walked on water.”
Over the years I have been asked to write the obituaries of a handful of acquaintances. The task could be heartwarming or problematic; sometimes it was a mixture of both.
Scanning the obituary pages has led me to wonder what my family will write about me when I check out. Both of my children are creative writers and inherited their father’s warped sense of humor, so don’t be surprised by what you read upon my passing.
I can imagine my kids writing, “Dad was a story teller and telling the same story over and over and over and over seemed to bring him great joy.” Or, “Our father was a frugal man. We suspect his nose grew so large because air is free.”
Perhaps I should make them write my obit now so I can proof it.
Obituaries can be crafted to put a good spin on the departed’s life. While reading the obituary of a less than ethical business acquaintance, I thought, “Now that’s piled pretty deep.” I wouldn’t have recognized the guy from his obituary.
What’s more telling is how one is remembered by those left behind.
Some of the dearest people I have known had human imperfections that caused others to avoid them. Beyond those flaws, however, I saw in them an amazing depth of love, understanding and kindness for others. That’s how I remember them.
I believe each of us will someday be held accountable for our lives here on earth. When that happens, I don’t expect to be asked about (or judged upon) how much money I earned, how many important offices or positions I held or how fancy my home and car were. I do, however, expect to be judged on how I treated others, particularly the less fortunate. I anticipate being asked how I used the blessings I received to benefit others.
On that day, my obituary and the words in it will be of no value or consequence. I suppose, then, it’s okay if my kids plug in a joke or two about their goofy old father. In fact, I would be disappointed if they don’t.
“A good character is the best tombstone,” Charles Spurgeon wrote. “Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.”