Obituaries: Love, Life and an Ode to Joy

What is an obituary and who is it for? Seriously, stop a moment and think of your answer. An obituary is the notice of someone’s death placed in the newspaper to alert others to the death. My parents would read the paper and often one would call out to the other, do you remember <xxx>, he died. I will send a card. The obituary served its purpose, inform people of death. It included enough information, school, employer, names of family members, that assured you, you knew the person. Yes, I know there were pictures included, but my parents would often joke how the photo, often of the person in their youth, looked nothing like the deceased.

With the loss of local newspapers, does it really makes sense to transfer that same format to online. For today, what is the obituary and who is it for? When newspapers were set by hand, the information was short;  it was a lot of work  and expense to set up the type. The basics where included, the death, the relatives and the date and place of the service. Yet, not much has changed. Templates for obituaries are basically an organization of facts.

Maybe that’s the gray area? Most obituaries feel hollow, facts versus the story the interpretation, what others are left with. A few years ago, there was a story on National Public Radio (NPR)

‘She Will Not Be Missed’: Children Deliver Harsh Send-Off In Mother’s Death Notice

The notice opens in typical fashion. Kathleen Dehmlow (nee Schunk) was born in 1938 in Wabasso, Minn., and married Dennis Dehmlow 19 years later. The couple had two children, Gina and Jay.

By the third paragraph, the death notice takes an unexpected turn.

“In 1962, she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California,” it reads. “She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.”

The notice ends on a particularly harsh and bitter note.” She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgement. She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”

‘She Will Not Be Missed’: Children Deliver Harsh Send-Off In Mother’s Death Notice

She may not have been missed, but the obituary wasn’t. As a result, the newspaper changed its policy. Writing something to be read is probably  close behind the fear of public speaking for most people. Trying to write while dealing with a loss must make it near impossible. The obituary template is a relief, one less thing to do. My neighbor died on August 4th, the service was on August 14th and I found out on August 28th. The obituary read like a family tree but, bore little resemblance to the woman I knew. This was a death in Hampton Virginia, a place I have not lived in 45 years. In a time when many of us are untethered, how do we find out about death? A text, a tweet, a Facebook post? With identity theft and cyber mischief, is it even wise to provide so many facts? Is it time to rethink the obituary? What is an obituary and who is it for?

One of the things I missed most during shutdown was live music. The Oakland Symphony is like no other. Hot as Hell, Cool Jazz with Josiah Woodson and Taylor Eigsti was the season opener in 2019. I walked to the theater and was in my happy place.  To watch Maestro Morgan conduct was like watching someone coax a bird. There were no sudden movements,it was smooth and fluid, like nothing I’d ever seen. His movements were like a chorus of reeds swaying in the breeze. But his feet; the staccato, the strikes, I don’t know what you call them, the giant movements I’ve seen in other conductors was in his feet. To see the look my cello teacher had when he described playing for the Maestro I could not help but smile as his description gave more depth to the man I admired for his passion, creativity and ability to bring magic to music. “Let Us Break Bread Together,” the holiday program for 2019 program featuring the music of Aretha Franklin is a post unto itself. It was unbelievable.

His obituaries1 were more satisfying, but, I did not know the man. Whilst I preferred the Washington Post over the New York Times, I have to acknowledge the celebrity obituary is a more complete biography. You get the “cause of death” versus a short illness. What completes it for me is Michael Morgan himself. His Facebook profile photo and a quote he gave in 2013. Michael Morgan thank you for the world you constructed; rest in peace. A rest in music is a pause,  a place of silence where the music stops for a moment before starting again. While this moment is a rest, I know the music will continue and his legacy will live on. 

“Being a classical musician, being a conductor, being black, being gay – all of these things put you on the outside, and each one puts you a little further out than the last one” and that “you get accustomed to constructing your own world because there are not a lot of clear paths to follow and not a lot of people that are just like you”

Michael Morgan

This week, consider obituaries. What should they look like today? Who is the target audience; what do people really need to know. We take photos of ourselves, post snippets of our lives, should we do the ultimate? What happens if we write our own obituaries?2


Washington Post: Michael Morgan, conductor and passionate advocate for classical music, dies at 63

New York Times: Michael Morgan, Adventurous Oakland Maestro, Dies at 63

2Wrote Their Own Obituaries

‘You owe me big time’: Surgeon pens own obituary before his death at 48

One Man Took It Upon Himself To Write His Own Obituary…Now I Don’t Know Whether To Laugh or Cry.

One comment

  1. I helped my Mom write her obit….she is still living but wants to control what is said about her in the future; this move is reflective of how my Mom lives her life. My hope for myself is that mine says I lived and loved well. That people know I cared, that I gave of myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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