The enduring importance of obituaries

The grave of Walter and Dottie Power at Maple Hill Cemetery in Hibbing, Minnesota. Walter and his brother Victor were both early mayors of Hibbing. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The first assignment they gave me at journalism school was to write my own obituary. It’s a good way to teach the inverted pyramid writing style. That’s where you put the most important information first. Plus, it reminds young journalists that they’re expendable, valuable perspective for the current state of the industry.

The other thing they teach you early in Journalism 101 is that newspapers are the first draft of history. I can attest to this. For more than a year I’ve been researching early Iron Range history through the life of late Hibbing mayor Victor Power. Newspapers provide a starting point for all understanding of the past. These old stories aren’t always right. They carry the biases and ignorance of bygone days, just as will one day be said of our times. But there often isn’t any better way to know our ancestors.

Nevertheless, reading the past through the newspaper also shows that, for many, the newspaper was the first and final draft of their personal history. For many, a printed obituary is the only lasting public record of life. As a researcher, I can’t stress the importance of obituaries to understanding the history of a family. An obituary provides a record of birth and death and the life in between.

That’s why obituaries are so important, and why we’ve got to figure out how to keep them alive — pun intended — going forward.

So here’s how I’ll pitch this to you. You don’t know it, but your great-great-great-great granddaughter or maybe cousin tenth-removed is going to be the President of the United States of the Universe. Exciting! And don’t worry about that “Universe” bit; a lot happens in the 2230s that won’t affect you. I’m sorry you won’t get to meet her, but I can assure you the she and the people who will research her fascinating life story will want to know something about you, your parents and grandparents.

She’ll want to know what you did. They’ll want to know where you lived and when. Everyone will wonder what life was like then (now) compared to the future. A clear, detailed obituary can answer all of these questions, all while helping process natural feelings of grief here and now.

I always prefer honest and direct obituaries.

We are born and we die. Save your word count for details that help us understand the person. For instance, if faith was important to your lost loved one, talk about what they did that shows that, or the experience that helped them believe. What were their endearing habits? What was admirable or interesting about their lives? Describe what they did.

We’ve reached a point where mental illness and addiction are better understood. Therefore we don’t have to use the shorthand or obscuration of the past when dealing with suicide or substance abuse. These are terrible things that can happen to good people.

We also know that people get divorced. Whatever the circumstances we should still remember past marriages in the story of a person’s life, especially when there are children involved.

Perhaps you saw the Southwestern Minnesota story in June where two adult children settled an old family score in a scathing obituary for their mother, even saying “she will not be missed.” This is a good reminder that the person’s life should be at the forefront, not the opinions of the survivors. The death of a family member is not the time to settle scores.

Newspapers have different policies for obituaries. The larger papers usually only run obituaries for prominent, newsworthy individuals. But they do run smaller paid obituaries for everyone else. Smaller dailies might charge for obituaries, though some don’t. Some run so much for free and then charge for longer obituaries. Weekly newspapers often run the obituaries for free.

I’d argue that it’s always important to run an obituary for your loved ones. Emotion often overwhelms us in the moments after a death, especially a tragic or unexpected one. Nevertheless, many people can help you write an obituary, whether it’s the funeral home, a family member, a family friend or colleague. I’ve had the honor of writing obituaries for a handful of people. I’ve always been grateful for this opportunity because it gave me a specific way to help in a time of need.

Heck, it might even be a good exercise to write your own obituary. Or at least the first draft. Save your loved ones the trouble. Plus, as I’ve learned researching the past, no one remembers the past like the people who were there.

Your descendant, the president, and her many biographers will thank you.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


Comments

  1. David Gray says:

    A very good essay. Here is an obituary from my great-great-grandfather, who served in the Civil War at battles such as Gaines Mill, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness.

    OBITUARY OF ISAAC PEDDYCOART

    Sheldon, Illinois — 2/16/01

    I.S. Peddycoart died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. T.J. Minkley on Friday, February 15, 1901 — Age of 65 years, 5 months and 7 days of paralysis.

    The day previous to his death he was not feeling well and retired about 7 o’clock in the evening.
    It was his usual custom to rise early in the morning and attend to the fires. Yesterday morning, Mr. Minkley arose at his usual hour and not finding Mr. Peddycoart up thought it a little strange. He glanced into the bedroom and seeing him apparently asleep thought no more of it. When Mrs. Minkley came downstairs, she went to the door of her father’s room and called him but recieved no answer. She called the second time with the same result. This alarmed her and she told her husband to go into the room. He found him aunable to move and unconscious. A physician was hastily summoned and it was found he had recieved a paralytic stroke. A blood vessel had bursted at the top of his head and it was apparent that death was only a question of a few hours. He never regained consciousness and died at 11 o’clock that forenoon.

    Deceased was born in Coshoctun County, Ohio, Sept 8, 1837 where he resided until 1840 when he removed to Iroquis County. In 1858 he moved to Missouri and remained there until the war broke out. He was driven by the Confederates to Ohio where he inlisted in the 12th Infantry Regular Army and served his country for three years. During his service he was confined in Libby Prison for about thirty days. After he was mustered out of the war he went to South Bend, Indiana where he remained for one year and then came to Iroquis County where he has since resided. He followed farming all his life.

    He leaves a brother W.R. Peddycoart in Watseka, two sons and four daughters, as follows, James Peddycoart residing northwest of Sheldon, David Peddycoart living three miles south of Eastburn; Mrs. Ed Sampson, Mrs. Mattie Peddycoart and Mrs. T.J. Minkley all of Sheldon; Miss Pearl Peddycoart of Lafayette, Indiana.

    Funeral services will be held Sunday at the house at ten o’clock and interment will be made in the Robert’s Cemetery west of Sheldon. Rev Elder of the U.B. Church will officiate.
    By Lura Fay Jones

  2. Kim E Young says:

    I agree, this is an elegant obituary and a fine remembrance for your family.

  3. Michelle says:

    Great essay, Aaron.

    I was given the honor of writing my grandmother’s obituary when she passed away a few weeks ago. It wasn’t easy to capture her nearly 90 years of life but I did the best I could. Some of what didn’t make her obituary got used in the eulogy I delivered at her memorial service.

  4. My cousin’s dad passed away a couple of years ago and he was given the honor of writing the obituary. He said it was really tough because the only one who knew the story was now dead. Do your family a favor and draft some facts of your past. We’ll all appreciate it when you’re gone, as we all will be.

  5. Elanne Palcich says:

    Writing your own obituary is good practice–it requires you to think about what in your life’s story you want to be remembered for.

  6. I liked the things you recommended for an obit. I’ve never understood why the past spouse is usually left out, like the person was raptured and the rest didn’t want to admit that they didn’t get to go up too. Also, yes, be straightforward about some of the challenges in a person’s life. I wrote out some things about my funeral service way back about 30 years ago and that needs to be redone. An obit shall be on my to do list.

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