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September 17, 2013 7:33 am

Obituaries often liveliest things in the newspaper

Written by Tom Lawrence

It’s said most people only make the paper when they are born and when they die. A birth notice is a short statement, an announcement of promise, the raising of the curtain on a life.

An obituary, however, is a tightly condensed novel. It attempts to sum up a hopefully long, almost assuredly complicated life, filled with tragic and comic moments, in a few hundred words. When they are done well, they make for great reading.

In recent years, some obits, as they are known in the newspaper business, have become Internet sensations because of the way they are written, and the fascinating stories they tell.

I came across the obituary of Mary “Pink” Mullaney, 85, last week. The Shorewood, Wis., woman was quite obviously a sweet and unique individual who sure knew all possible applications for used pantyhose. There’s no doubt — Pink was a pistol.

From the obit, clearly written with love and affection: “Those who’ve taken her lessons to heart will continue to ensure that a cold drink will be left for the overheated garbage collector and mail carrier, every baby will be kissed, every nursing home resident will be visited, the hungry will have a sandwich, the guest will have a warm bed and soft nightlight, and the encroaching possum will know the soothing sensation of a barbecue brush upon its back.”

On the other hand, an obit that popped up on Facebook pages and on newspaper websites last week showed the anger a family felt for their mother.

The obit for Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick, 78, appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal and on its website before it was removed from the paper’s online site. It started by noting that Johnson-Reddick “died alone on Aug. 30, 2013.”

It gets worse. A lot worse.

“She is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible. While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. ... Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.”

The obit, written by her daughter Katherine Reddick, takes a bitter parting shot at her mother.

“On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the after-life reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.”

Wow. I doubt this will ease their pain. It also shows how deep those scars must be for the children.

In, well, a “happier” death notice, take a look at the obit written by Jane Catherine Lotter, 60, a Seattle writer and editor who had the time to put it together before she ended her life using the state’s Death With Dignity Act.

It also “went viral,” and deservedly so.

Lotter was damn good: “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary. (The other advantages are no longer bothering with sunscreen and no longer worrying about your cholesterol.)”

She listed her career accomplishments at the start, and then offered a glimpse into what a delightful person she must have been: “I would demonstrate my keen sense of humor by telling a few jokes here, but the Times charges for these listings by the column inch and we must move on.”

Lotter thanked family and friends for their love and what they did for her, and also showed her appreciation for “Mrs. Senour, my first grade teacher, for teaching me to read. I loved witty conversation, long walks, and good books.”

Her parting words for her husband and children are deeply moving.

“I met Bob Marts at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square on November 22, 1975, which was the luckiest night of my life. We were married on April 7, 1984. Bobby M, I love you up to the sky. Thank you for all the laughter and the love, and for standing by me at the end. Tessa and Riley, I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you.”

Lotter was a graceful writer, and she ended her last piece with style: “Beautiful day, happy to have been here.”

Speaking of funny, self-written obits, sample some of the work of John E. Holden, 93, of Lancaster, Ohio.

Holden wrote that he “took the Deep Six, Monday, May 27, 2013 at the Willow Valley Retirement Community after a life filled with endless laughter and debauchery.”

He wrote of his bawdy habits, his “dinky pension,” and the fact that he was banned from the International Mickey Mouse Club for “providing housing for a number stray cats.”

I bet he wishes the editor who listed the date of his death had added a comma after the year and the word “of” to that sentence on cats, but so it goes.

According to the obit, which he wrote several years before he died, “His last words were “I’m really going to miss myself.’”

I am sure a lot of people are, since he was an exceptionally interesting man, according to a story on his life that accompanied the obit.

I think my favorite is the farewell story on Long Beach, Calif., resident Harry Weathersby Stamps, 70, who was described as  a “‘ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler” in an obit written by one of his daughters, Amanda Lewis.

“Harry was locally sourcing his food years before chefs in California starting using cilantro and arugula (both of which he hated). For his signature bacon and tomato sandwich, he procured 100% all white Bunny Bread from Georgia, Blue Plate mayonnaise from New Orleans, Sauer’s black pepper from Virginia, home grown tomatoes from outside Oxford, and Tennessee’s Benton bacon from his bacon-of-the-month subscription. ...

“He had a life-long love affair with deviled eggs, Lane cakes, boiled peanuts, Vienna [Vi-e-na] sausages on saltines, his homemade canned fig preserves, pork chops, turnip greens, and buttermilk served in martini glasses garnished with cornbread.

It gets even better, and in a very loving way.

“Harry took fashion cues from no one. His signature every day look was all his: a plain pocketed T-shirt designed by the fashion house Fruit of the Loom, his black-label elastic waist shorts worn above the navel and sold exclusively at the Sam’s on Highway 49, and a pair of old school Wallabees (who can even remember where he got those?) that were always paired with a grass-stained MSU baseball cap.”

The ending is a classic, which is one reason the obit became an online sensation.

“Because of his irrational fear that his family would throw him a golf-themed funeral despite his hatred for the sport, his family will hold a private, family only service free of any type of ‘theme.’”

I wished I’d met Harry, but in a way, I did. Love to have downed a few deviled eggs with him, although I would have passed on the buttermilk.

I have written dozens of obits, and edited thousands. The three that I both hated to write and tried to do my best on were the ones for my mom, dad and dear sister Anita. I didn’t want to make a mistake, and I sought to honor their lives, but they were words I wished I had never had to write.

I’m not sure what will be in my obit, since some secrets are best taken to the grave, and I’ve already had hundreds of chances to tell the same stories over and over again. I am sure my family and friends would probably skim it while rolling their eyes and saying, “No, not that tired tale AGAIN! Who cares if you hung out with Jimmy Buffett? Sheesh. Give it a rest, dude.”

Of course, I won’t be there to hear it, or to reply. Sure hate to let someone get the last word on me, but what are you gonna do in that situation?

Maybe I’ll get the chance to hit that final deadline, but ideally not for a few dozen more years. Sure hope there are no typos.

1 Comment

  • Comment Link October 07, 2013 2:58 pm posted by LaVonne E. Lawrence

    Wow, Tom you are a famous writer. You can edit my Obit,okay? Glad you are my cousin!!!!
    I have the Powell paper in my favorites.

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