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Write Your Obit? If You Don’t, They Will

I have definite views about obituaries.

I have company. Some journalists, funeral directors and history buffs love to read obituaries of total strangers. We get more than information. Obituaries provide snapshots of bygone times: Graduations from long-closed schools, jobs at factories and downtown stores that no longer exist, etc.

But most Americans have enough to do with getting through each day instead of gleaning obituaries of people they never wanted/needed to meet.

Obituaries have changed in the six decades or so that I have been an avid reader. That is not surprising. America has also changed a lot in those decades.

The 1950s were, on the surface, “Happy Days.” I did not dress or be cool like “The Fonz,” Henry Winkler’s character on that retrospective TV show. My high school persona was more akin to the goofier character of Ralph Malph.

Obituaries followed the conformist script of the times. So-and-so died now, had been born then, did this and that, is survived by them, will be eulogized and buried there, send flowers or memorial donations here, end of story. Accompanying photographs were rare. Back then, transforming a photograph into a dot-matrixed “halftone” image burnt onto a piece of lead was a complicated, time-consuming process.

I still like that format for its historical value. On some of its details, I remain adamant. When I edited obituaries, nobody “passed.” They “died,” period. If someone asked to be able to claim that a loved one “went home to meet Jesus,” I cynically said I would accept that language if the petitioner could supply an unretouched photograph of the deceased person shaking Jesus’ hand. I would put that story and photo atop Page One.

Arrogance ‘r us, I guess.

I also still feel a gurgling, cough-it-up sensation in my throat when I read fulsome gushing written by idealistic relatives about someone’s oh-so-perfect life. I encountered more than one situation where a man was described as a “dearly beloved husband” who will be “sorely missed” by his wife and children, when the only accurate word was “sorely.” I had known the man in real life to be an always-soused bigot who regularly beat his wife and children, kept them in poverty either by drinking up his wages or being too drunk to hold a job, and never bathed, either.

But, back then, “dearly beloved” he was, in the published obituary. Appearances, y’know.

Today, I delight in a new art form, the self-written obituary.

Once rare, these epistles supplement the birth-work-death facts with refreshing realism. Sometimes it is wry humor, the kind found on a few tombstones, e.g., “Move a little bit to the left, won’t you? You are blocking my sunshine!” Sometimes, the realism is a putdown of pretentiousness, e.g., “You boring dolts won’t be able to talk me to sleep with your self-serving stories any longer.”

I drew the line at personal attacks from beyond the grave. The deceased is no longer a paying customer. But the brother-in-law he castigated in his obituary draft still buys the newspaper, and so does that man’s family. I tolerated generalized insults, e.g., “he remains my son even though he became a Democrat.” I edited out vindictiveness, e.g., “I know that (expletive) stole $1,000 from Grandma’s desk the day she died!”

As I said, I like self-written obituaries.

I like them so much that I have written one, all about humble, shy me.

You might see it – not soon, I hope, but in due time. That will be up to those who are editors on my day of demise.

Somehow, I need to work “Hogwash!” into its text. I have used that as a dismissive epithet in columns and editorials for a half-century. I love its succinct lambasting.

I cannot imagine leaving writing my obituary to my now-grown children. You see, I raised disrespectful savages. They would demean my deceased remains with pejorative and totally false epithets like “Ogre to his children!” and “Remorseless taskmaster!” Regular readers know those criticisms are totally incompatible with my sweet, nonaggressive nature.

Do you have a self-written obituary? If not, why not?

What about the family members who might write your obituary? Do you really trust them? Hmm?

Turn to pen and paper, or computer screen and keyboard, right now. After a few redrafts, include a copy with your will, accompanied by, “If this does not appear in print exactly as written, anyone named herein as beneficiary is voided. Instead, give the money to saving teeny-weeny whales!” or something like that.

Yes, you should avoid writing down those personal attacks on surviving scoundrels that I mentioned above. Your surviving family has to suffer the comments your self-written obituary would produce.

But as you write, please do enjoy a “Muwahaha!” chuckle at what you could have written about that dolt, that whiner or that (expletive), even though in the end you chose civility over revenge.

I know I did.

¯ ¯ ¯

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.

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