Jerry Davich: Obituaries say a lot about the living and the dead
April 2, 2013 4:11PM
Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 20, 2013 11:08PM
George A. “Papou” Christakis, age 98 years and 10 months, entered into eternal life on Saturday, March 30, 2013.
On Tuesday, this is how I (and thousands of other Post-Tribune readers) learned about the death of Mr. Christakis, the father of a friend and coworker of mine, Sandy Pero. She often gushed about her beloved dad and how active he was “for his age.”
But if it wasn’t for his newspaper obituary I may not have heard about his death for quite some time, if ever. This is just one of the many cultural aspects of an obituary — derived from a Latin word, meaning death.
Such public notices of a person’s death are usually accompanied with a short biographical account of their life. Although such announcements of death have been published in this country the 16th century, according to the Funeral Consumers Information Society, they began appearing in newspapers in the 18th century.
Yet here we are in 2013 and, as a society, we are still utterly entranced by their importance, practicality, and somewhat morbid qualities. When I posted on social media about our collective fascination with obits, I received dozens of insightful responses.
“I check them every day just to make sure my name isn’t listed,” quipped Rhonda Miller of Hobart, repeating a popular joke from many senior citizens.
“I read them daily to see if there is anyone I know or if any of my students’ family members are in there,’ said Carrie Martin, a teacher for Portage Township Schools.
Lake County Treasurer John Petalas echoed the feelings of many gray-haired readers, noting, “I always loved reading about what these people did in life. But now I find at least a person a week that I know. That’s a little unnerving.”
“I check them every day, since I was a teenager … you never know if you knew someone who passed away,” said Karen Pachapa-Stavitzke of Hobart.
In his book, “Gary’s First Hundred Years,” region historian James Lane wrote that obits “listed bereaved loved ones plus nicknames (often papa or momma) and special talents (poet, southern cooking, fisherman) but few clues about cause of death beyond the ubiquitous ‘after a brief illness.’”
In the 1880s, a trend called “death journalism” permeated newspaper obits in this country and England, focusing on the graphic details of someone’s death. For example, the New York Times obit on the death of Theodore Roosevelt leads with an elaborate description of the blood clot that “detached itself from a vein and entered the lungs,” according to the Funeral Consumers Information Society.
Not so much these days, where “cause of death” is typically and purposely omitted.
Travis Gearhart of Hebron jokingly wondered why obits for some people aren’t more realistic, such as, “Didn’t pay child support, cheated on all three wives, overall pretty much a jerk.” But even in these bold times for journalism, that would still be considered taboo.
Instead, a truly well-written news obit can read like “a short story celebrating a life of significance,” explained one reader. A life of significance — all of us would like to believe we are leading such a life and our obit would reflect that.
One of the longest obits I’ve ever read was for former Gary city clerk Katie Hall in 2012, a full-page article including a who’s who list of Northwest Indiana movers, shakers, and policy makers. It read like a narrative story from womb to tomb.
I’ve written several news-obit columns through the years, including one for E. “Hugh” McLaughlin, who “looked like an old suit on a dusty hanger in the back of a forgotten closet when I first met him,” I wrote in 2007.
His simple obit, “Former opinion letter regular and Gary City Council Member … died on Nov. 16 of kidney failure … at the age of 79,” simply didn’t do him justice. I felt compelled to flesh out more about him, his life, and his lifestyle.
That’s exactly what Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maureen O’Donnell has been doing for three years, writing news obits that “tell a story,” she told me.
“One reason I think readers still gravitate to obituaries is that they appreciate when someone tells a tale,” she said. Plus, “Obituaries often are given more space than other news stories, and that allows the writer to open up, tell a story, and let it ‘breathe.’”
O’Donnell often hears from family members of the deceased saying they found it cathartic and healing to talk about their loved one.
“Every day, there are so many inspiring, unusual, fascinating people to write about,” she added. “I try to write about all different types of people — men, women, different nationalities, professions, and outlooks. Often, one little line in their life story will make them stand out.”
In 2010, she wrote about Michael Fultz, an international expert on Parker fountain pens who owned one of world’s largest collections. She wrote: “The Triumph. The Skyline. The Symmetric. The Ripple. Big Red. The world of fountain pen collecting has names as beautiful as those of a classic car, ocean liner or train.
“And in that world — where a rumor of a rare Waterman Cardinal No. 20 can cause a frenzy — Michael Fultz was a prince, if not a king.”
She told me, “I find stories like his — filled with passion, drive and knowledge — fascinating.” So do all of us, I’ve learned.
A recent obit in the New York Times caused an uproar when it began with her home-cooked accomplishments that were deemed sexist by critics. (The obit was later rewritten and republished.)
Yvonne Brill, who died last Wednesday at age 88, made a tasty beef stroganoff dish, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children, the obit started.
But Brill also was an award-winning rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to help keep satellites from straying out of their orbits, which was noted later in her obit. Which accomplishment means more?
I wonder what Ms. Brill would have thought of her own obit. Or what any of us would think about our own obit someday. Some recent obit headlines included, “Prolific artist designed Doomsday Clock,” “Climbed Mt. Everest several times,” and “Loved gardening more than anything.”
What will yours say?