I read the obituaries almost every day. I read them in the Observer every Wednesday to see if anyone I know is gone, and in daily editions of metropolitan newspapers to catch up on the passing of the famous and infamous.
Generally speaking, most obits are pretty cut and dried, offering readers a capsule biography that balances positive and negative elements without becoming a tribute or a hatchet job.
But there was a time when obit writers waxed eloquent on passings, as is the case of Mrs. Charles Wheelock who, according to the Birmingham News, Sept. 23, 1899,
" ... was struck down by cruel wheels and remained unconscious until Wednesday, Sept. 20, when, as the morning sun was climbing over the tops of the eastern mountain and kissing the dews from the petals of the flowers in the valley, the dread mandate went forth that struck her name from the roll and her pure spirit winged its flight under the guardianship of angels into the regions of life and light eternal ..." What ornate Victorian bereavement. You don't read obits like that anymore.
True, we still use euphemisms for "dead" like "was ushered to the angels," "teed up for golf in the Kingdom," and "received his final marching orders."
Today, the obit is the last word - maybe the last time a person's name will get in the paper. And we readers remain ever curious about nice folks we knew or didn't know or departed deadbeats and felons.
Though we rarely read much about bad habits, scandals, or personal indiscretions, we do discover just how special most lives are, in one way or another. Some obits even move the reader, telegraphing what the departed achieved or suffered or overcame. And many obits are intriguing or downright entertaining, in a way.
I recently read a fascinating obit about a car hauler and drag strip racer from Alder Springs, Ala. Travis Vaught, 47, died of an aneurysm, though everyone believed him to be in good health. After noting his car-hauling jobs and drag-racing exploits, the writer offered the usual details - where Travis had lived, who survived him, who sang at his funeral and where he was buried.
What caught my eye, though, was the end of the piece. "Pallbearers included Snoopy Vaught, Scarecrow Burbanks, Buddy McCullers, Whiskers Beard, and Smut Smith." Interesting list. Makes me wish I'd known ol' Travis and his friends.
Another attention-getter concerned a 100-year-old New England Yankee, Clifford Tucker, whose obit revealed that he didn't really do anything. But it was how he didn't do it that made him special to the obit writer. The old man ran a small fish store, watching the tide and time pass him by and loving his hearty suppers of fried eels.
At 95, Clifford startled his friends with the pronouncement, "The world's gone daffy." Occasionally stirring up a storm of controversy, Tucker was also well known for his refusal to make left turns across traffic and driving to destinations that included only right turns.
Steve Miller, editor and publisher of "Goodbye! The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries," describes the passing of one Grover Krantz, Bigfoot authority and obsessed "anthropologist" who labored at the margins of respectability most of his life. Kranz was portrayed as a paranoid who railed at "closed-minded bastards" who challenged his evidence that there is a Bigfoot.
The most interesting part of the obit, however, was the ending, which read: "A physically imposing specimen himself, Kranz nevertheless failed at his last wish to have his body accepted for display at the Smithsonian Museum."
Finally, consider this not-quite obit, published March 13, 1921. A prominent citizen of Piedmont, Ala., had taken sick and was expected to die soon. The Rev. A. E. Page announced that he would preach a funeral on the following Sunday at the baptist church.
Though the prominent citizen's name was not disclosed, the newspaper description was specific enough for most readers to determine who it was. Page declared that he hoped the old gentleman would die before Sunday night. But if he refused to "kick in," Reverend Page would preach the funeral anyway. Dead or alive, the news made the paper. All in all, it seemed like a pretty good obit.
One last tidbit I've gleaned from obit experts: people who live to 110 or over rarely party and they stay close to home. Keep that in mind.
Contact aging columnist Robert Brake at email@example.com