Category Archives: Writing

The obituary is dead. Long live the obituary.

The obituary is dead.

Well, almost dead, if you’ll pardon the horrible pun. If you’ve read one recently, there’s a very good possibility you understand what I mean. These days obituaries, always excepting those of celebrities and other famous people, are pretty bad — in fact, most are very poorly written. They do not reflect well on the deceased or survivors. They certainly do not reflect well on the newspapers that publish them.

“So what?” you may ask. The dead are dead and no longer care. And yeah, their survivors care, but are often too distraught, depressed, upset or just numb to worry over an obituary. Besides, they signed that line that says it’s okay. Making it look good is what the newspaper is for, right? If they’re falling down on the job, that’s their problem, right?

Wrong.

Call just about any newspaper and they will tell you obituaries are paid space just like advertising. Hardly any newspaper has an obituary desk anymore. Instead, the responsibility gets passed around the newsroom from person to person and whoever has a little bit of time enters them into the system. There’s nobody to take the kind of crummy copy that makes a restaurant menu look good and turn it into something better.

See, most newspapers receive obituaries directly from the funeral homes — they’re the ones who actually write the obituaries. Also, most newspapers will only run the obit if it comes directly from the funeral home because it’s the easiest way to verify a death. Now, I’m not knocking funeral homes, they do a very hard job and on top of that often have to deal with all sorts of family drama that emerges when someone dies. That said, most of them do not know how to write an obituary.

Once upon a time, before declining ad revenues and newsroom cutbacks, newspapers did have obituary desks or at least a designated person whose job it was to proofread, copy edit and basically put obituaries into a set format. This could vary a bit from region to region, but essentially consisted of the same information. At the small weekly newspaper where I work, we still take the time to rework obituaries into something surviving family members would not be ashamed to clip out and preserve. However, because we are a weekly, all of our obituaries are past tense (they run after the funeral). We also don’t charge anything either.

This is not the case for most newspapers, though, and the general lack of attention to the obituaries is not going to change anytime soon. So if the obituary is dead or dying, will there ever be a decently written one in a newspaper again? Can the obituary be resurrected?

Of course it can.

Write it yourself.

Yes, you can do this. It may sound morbid, but knowing that this very public tribute to yourself or a loved one is written well and accurate can be a great relief when the time comes. It’s one less thing you or your heirs have to think about and most funeral homes will thank you for it. There will be some funeral homes who object, there always are, and I don’t advocate making a humongous fuss if they refuse to submit the obituary you wrote to the newspaper — although, to my knowledge, there’s no reason they should — but I do suggest standing firm. This is especially true if the obituary was approved by the deceased prior to death, or it has the approval of the most immediate surviving family.

The basic obituary has seven parts with an optional tagline for if the funeral home offers online condolences. Here is a breakdown, with examples from an entirely fictitious obit:

1. Name, age, address, date and place of death

Example 1: John Wilber Jones Jr., 88, of 203 Ridgewood Drive, Anytown, died Sept. 10, 2012, at his home.

Example 2: John Wilber Jones Jr., 88, formerly of Anytown, died Sept. 10, 2012, at Pine View Rest Home.

* If the deceased passed away in a hospital or treatment center, or in the home of a relative who was providing end-of-life care, Example 1 would still apply; just substitute that location for “at his home.”

** If the deceased was from out of state and died locally, or was local and died out of state, include that in the address or place of death.

*** Some people like to include “flowery” language, such as “went to be with his lord and maker” or “after a long fight with cancer.” This is perfectly acceptable, but remember most newspapers charge by the word. If money is no object, by all means, include all the flowery language you wish. In all other cases it’s best to stick with the basic format.

2. Basic facts about the deceased; start with vitals

Example: He was born April 29, 1924, in Any County, a son of John Wilber Jones Sr. and Mary Smith. He attended county schools and was a bricklayer. He was a U.S. Army veteran, having served with distinction during World War II. He was a member of First United Methodist Church and the John Wesley Sunday school class and was an active part of the Methodist Men. He also belonged to the Anytown Civitans and coached youth football for 40 years.

* Again, remember that you’re likely paying by the word. Don’t shortchange your loved one, but try to pick out the things for which he or she would most like to be remembered.

** If the deceased was not a member of a specific religious institution, but did profess a specific faith, just say “He was of the (e.g. Methodist) faith.”

3. The predeceased

Example: He was preceded in death by a son, Bert Jones; and infant granddaughter, Shelby Jones; a brother, Harry Jones; and a sister, Lucille White.

* Do not list parents unless the deceased is particularly young, or has only one parent living. Name immediate family members only; do not name cousins, nieces or nephews unless they lived with or were particularly close to the deceased.

4. The survivors

Example: In 1947 he married Jane Smithfield, who survives of the home. Other survivors include a son, John Wilber Jones III and wife Rachel of Anytown; two daughters, Caroline Vance and husband Bill and Margaret Deale and husband Tim, all of Philadelphia, Pa.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; a sister, Helen Wilson of Any County; and many nieces and nephews.

* There is a specific order to follow in naming survivors. The surviving spouse, if there is one, always goes first. The order thereafter is: children, stepchildren, parents (if surviving), grandparents (if surviving), grandchildren, step grandchildren, great-grandchildren, step great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, siblings or siblings-in-law, aunts or uncles and companion animals if they were close to the deceased.

** On naming grandchildren and great-grandchildren — do it if you can afford it or if it’s necessary to prove a connection to the area (some newspapers will not run an out-of-town obituary, even if it is paid, unless there is a local connection). Otherwise just list how many of each.

5. Funeral arrangements

Example: The visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at Brothers Funeral Home. The funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at First United Methodist Church with the Rev. Paul Peterson officiating. Interment will follow in the church graveyard. Afterwards, the family will receive friends at the home of Seth Wilson, 710 Greenway Road.

* Obviously, if you’re writing an obituary ahead of time you do not know the date of death and may not know funeral arrangements, but these are things that can be easily plugged in once decisions are made.

6. Memorials (optional)

Example: Memorials can be made to the American Heart Association, 4247 Park Place Court, Glen Allen, VA 23060, or to the charity of the donor’s choice.

7. Assistance by (optional)

Example: Brothers Funeral Home assisted the family.

* This line is generally superfluous if No. 8 is included.

8. Condolences (optional)

Example: Condolences may be made at www.brothersfuneralhome.com.

* If the funeral home does not provide an online condolence forum, it’s appropriate to substitute an address where condolences can be mailed.

Now that we’ve gone through the obituary section by section, here it is completed:

John Wilber Jones Jr., 88, of 203 Ridgewood Drive, Anytown, died Sept. 10, 2012, at his home.

He was born April 29, 1924, in Any County, a son of John Wilber Jones Sr. and Mary Smith. He attended county schools and was a bricklayer. He was a U.S. Army veteran, having served with distinction during World War II. He was a member of First United Methodist Church and the John Wesley Sunday school class and was an active part of the Methodist Men. He also belonged to the Anytown Civitans and coached youth football for 40 years.

He was preceded in death by a son, Bert Jones; and infant granddaughter, Shelby Jones; a brother, Harry Jones; and a sister, Lucille White.

In 1947 he married Jane Smithfield, who survives of the home. Other survivors include a son, John Wilber Jones III and wife Rachel of Anytown; two daughters, Caroline Vance and husband Bill and Margaret Deale and husband Tim, all of Philadelphia, Pa.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; a sister, Helen Wilson of Any County; and many nieces and nephews.

The visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at Brothers Funeral Home. The funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at First United Methodist Church with the Rev. Paul Peterson officiating. Interment will follow in the church graveyard. Afterwards, the family will receive friends at the home of Seth Wilson, 710 Greenway Road.

Memorials can be made to the American Heart Association, 4247 Park Place Court, Glen Allen, VA 23060, or to the donor’s charity of choice.

Brothers Funeral Home assisted the family.

Condolences may be made at www.brothersfuneralhome.com.

Once you get past the uncomfortable feelings, this really is quite simple to do. It’s also oddly cathartic and can help you come to terms with an impending death; I say this from experience, having written five obituaries for family members in the past four years. It’s also a relief to other family members because it’s one less thing to worry about.

Take control of obituaries. Write them yourself ahead of time and you can be assured that what you’ll read in the newspaper will better reflect the life of your loved one.

Long live the obituary.

#storycontinues (30 april to 6 may)

Sophia licked her lips. There was something magical about Mary Mae’s cooking, she was sure of it. No one else could do the things with flour and water their cook could.

Such as honeycakes. Sophia spotted them on the cake platter under a glass dome and licked her lips. Two minutes later she’d pushed a chair up the counter and pulled a tea towels from the nearby stack.

Really, it was all terribly convenient. She counted the honeycakes carefully, then chose three of the smallest and wrapped them in the towel. The rest she rearranged to make it look like none had been taken. Hopping down, she tugged the chair back where it belonged and opened the door to the back stairs, honeycakes in hand.

A Starfighter Pilot’s Pep-Talk

Babylon 5 Light Starfury
(Wikimedia Commons)

All starfighter pilots are a little bit crazy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We have to be to do our job.Oh, I know you lot, fresh out of the Academy, say that you’re “crazy awesome.” I know, and it’s not because we bugged the barracks.

Although, come to think of it, we probably should. Major, make a note.

Point is, once upon a time, we were you. Now we’re us and we know better. We are all, every single being in this room, a wee bit mad, as my first CO often said. Normal, sane people don’t pull on a flight suit designed fifty years ago and stuff themselves into a bird where the only thing between them and hard vacuum is a mess of titanium, tansluminum, transparisteel, thrice-repaired motherboards and a jumble of circuitry.

It takes a special sort of crazy to do that. It takes an even specialer sort of crazy to keep doing year in, year out.

So what about the Fleet pilots, I hear you muttering. The Fleet-based squadrons that put on the same flight suits but fly birds with no FTL and no shields only think they’re best. The thing to remember about them is, they think that way because their birds are lighter and more maneuverable in zero-g.

Fact is, they’re just stupid. And suicidal. Without Fleet backup they’re sitting ducks.

Yes, that pun was on purpose.

No, I do not have a grudge against Fleet and their pilots. But it’s beyond stupidity, bordering on suicidal, to do what they do. Fleet likes to call them the elite, the best pilots in service, but how many of you — and I’m talking to all of you, not just our newbies — chose the Starfighter Corps over the Fleet?

That’d be most of you, then. That’s because you’re a little bit crazy, not stupid and suicidal. The Major here started off as Fleet, but we don’t hold it against her. She wasn’t really suicidal, you see, and got out before her case of stupidity reached terminal velocity. She’s a rare case, though.

I see a couple of our newbies didn’t. Well, if you’re holding a grudge, be sure to lose it fast. As in, before you leave this hangar in one of my birds. That kind of thinking will get you killed. It’ll kill others, too, if you’re really unlucky.

Trust me. I’ve seen it happen.

So if Fleet pilots want to brag, let ’em. We know, and every single member of the brass knows, who pulls more of their weight and gets more done. Besides, most Fleeters get damned tired of hearing their pilots brag, and really, really tired of hauling their asses out of the bar after we’ve tromped them yet again.

#storycontinues (23-29 april)

It was beyond ridiculous. Especially since this route, down the stairs and under the table, had been her idea. It was simple, so ridiculously simple, so obvious, she’d told the boys, that no one would ever think to look there.

And here she was, almost ruining her own plan. It was too much to bear.

Sophia breathed a soft sigh and slipped through into the dining room. Any other night she might stop to look at the silver tea set displayed on the sideboard and only used on holidays, but tonight she was too focused to bother. The door to the butler’s pantry was ajar, so it was hardly any trouble to slip through and into the kitchen.

Almost immediately she stopped and inhaled. Supper was hours over but the smell of Mary Mae’s chicken and biscuits still lingered.

#storycontinues roundup (december 2012)

After a lamentable absence, a return to writing, and I’ll start with a #storycontinues roundup from the end of 2011. The following was tweeted, but never found its way here.

That oversight is now corrected.

Confused? Click on the #storycontinues link above to read the story from its beginning. Story tweets will resume 23 April 2012.

***

Nothing moved that she could see, but then she couldn’t see all that much in the dark. What had seemed somewhat light, if shadowy, from the stairs was darker at ground level. The light from the parlor didn’t reach all the way to the table and the moonlight from the glass windows flanking the front door was weaker than expected for a full moon night.

She would have to rely on her ears, not her eyes, before making the next move.

There were no footsteps, no voices any closer than they had been. Had her sneeze really gone unheard?

It appeared so. To be safe though, she ducked back under the table and counted to three hundred three more times. This had been close, too close. It was getting harder and harder to sneak about, but there was no time to worry. She had to go, now, while she safely could, but she had to do so carefully.

When all was silent she slipped out from under the table, wincing at the sound of her bare feet on the tile.

“Next time, slippers,” she half-whispered to herself, wincing, again, at the sound of her voice.

She really was doing terribly tonight, but then this detour was unplanned. Not that it should matter, she told herself ruthlessly. She and the boys had planned for things like this — acted out how to get away, where to hide, how long to count, everything — and here she almost got caught.