Why do we write obituaries? - (9/7/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacist was reading his friend's obituary in the local paper. "Bernard Tudball fell asleep in the arms of His Lord on Tuesday after a long battle with Terwilliger's Syndrome. He was 78. An avid bingo-player and fire ant farmer, he leaves behind his wife, Pear Blossom, their conjoined twins, Rue and Sue, and his late non-binary cat, Mr. Wiggins. Services will be held Saturday at Our Lady of the Sorrows on Teardrop Lane. Donations can be made in Bernard’s name to the Adult Fingerpainting Club, of which he was Corresponding Secretary." How depressing, thought the pharmacist. Nothing was mentioned about Bernie's love of whoopie cushions, his monogrammed earmuff fetish, or his wish to go to the African nation of Chad and sit on their vast beaches. No pizzazz. No oomph. Must obituaries be so final? We are born. We live. We die. End of story.

While obituaries go back to colonial times when the first US newspapers were printed, they were typically about public figures who had passed. That is because typesetting was a primitive, slow process that involved performing tedious tasks by hand. Thus, print newspapers had a 4-page maximum length that did not change until linotype machines became common in the late 1880s. Even then, the news had to compete with revenue-generating advertisers, so obituaries had to be short and snappy. Although the 2015 death notice of North Dakota man Doug Legler was ultra-concise. Along with his photo, it simply read: "Doug died."

Obituary writing became essential when ordinary folks came to rely on the death announcements to keep tabs on their family connections. Local newspapers publish death announcements to notify the community of funeral services. One important note: A child might rush to the newspaper to get to the comics page first. But by the age of one’s first heart attack, one may scan the death notices page first. Why? It is local news, no matter who died. It is a relief not to see your name on that page on that day. If someone younger than you has croaked, you will consider it a modicum of success. 

How about your picture with your obituary? A photo would complete the news of your final exit. Make sure that your image was not clipped from a group shot. What's eerier than a disembodied hand hanging over the shoulder of the dearly departed, even if it's your bowling buddy, George? And forget about using a picture with oxygen hoses up your nose. That will only remind people of the time your wife “accidentally” stood on your mother’s oxygen hose for 14 minutes while “she died peacefully surrounded by family.” Sure, a picture of yourself when you are in your prime is terrific. But beware of snarky readers who might say, "Yes, she was lovely back then, but she sure looked like hell at the nursing home!" Use a trained photographer. Do not be shy about saying, "I want a nice obituary photo for the paper." Plenty of people do it. And it is cool to think outside the box. If you want to use a snap of when you caught the 15-pound bass, okay. Photos at the autopsy or the wake are never advised.    

Should an obituary mention how a person died? Using words like "died suddenly" usually arouse suspicion if the person is under 40. Suicide? Murder? Fell down the stairs? The reader can only assume. "Died of natural causes" is common when the person is elderly. No one wants to know that she popped off after choking on the 47 pills she took to keep her alive. The phrase “died after a long battle with” only makes you wonder whether you yourself would want to endure a 10-year death watch. When one finally dies, people will look dumbly and say, "Didn't he die 5 years ago?"

We write obituaries to immortalize our lives, to instruct, to inspire, and even to get a chuckle. The pharmacist suggests that you write your own if you must. But keep it the way you want others to remember you. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.


Show All News Headlines

Click Here For HowToTakePills© Archive