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Celebrate Life, Read the Obituaries

by Matt Weston (writer), New York, April 02, 2007

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The paid obituary is as inevitable as the death to which it pays respect. One-half inch by one-inch, these gray rectangles are laid like bricks on the pages of every daily newspaper.

Their boilerplate formula is easy to follow: age of the deceased, cause of death, a list of surviving family members. Rituals like these offer a thing always done when a loved one dies to families who are grieving and sprinting from estate lawyers to florists to funeral parlors.

It’s this same formula that makes paid obituaries seem defanged and repetitive, if you read them often enough. You begin to believe that all struggles with illness end heroically – instead of in tremendous pain, or peacefully, at best, in morphine-induced hazes.

If sugary post-mortem obits, by their very nature, don’t tell the whole truth about our last days, they deserve a pass. Paid obits are for the living, and the living want to forget the sponge baths and walkers. They would rather remember the Lions Club service award and golf handicap. So, too, would the Lions Club members who trawl the paid obituaries every day, especially as they grow older, checking if the sick gentleman who hasn’t been to a function in months has made his final relapse.

A second kind of obituary exists outside the “town crier” mode of announcing where to view the body, and when. Sometimes called “news obits” or “tributes,” these elegies aren’t commissioned by the family; rather editors assign them to staff writers or draw copy from AP wire feeds. Well-regarded and literate, such tributes run in topical magazines like the Economist, and in ever-slumping newspapers like the LA Times+ and, more than paid obituaries, use tools like the charming obsession or telling quirk to peer inside the lives of the unknowable dead.

On March 18th, we learned from the LA Times’ Elaine Woo that “Ida Honorof, 93; radio host crusaded for the environment” died on March 5th in Eureka, CA. For 20 years Honorof hosted “Report to the Consumer,” a hard-hitting radio program on KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles.

Activism pervaded her life off-the-air as well, and for three months in the mid-70’s Honorof protested the federal government’s swine flu inoculation program at L.A. County Board of Supervisors’ meetings. She wore a sandwich board – a provocative message written on the front – to every session. The Board had banned protests at its meetings and ordered her to take off the sign.

“‘I would start to do so, then they would say, ‘No,’ ” Honorof later recalled, “because it appeared that I was nude’” underneath it.

Elaine Woo, the obituarist, clarifies, “[s]he was wearing a very skimpy miniskirt.” With this detail we feel we know how far Honorof would go for her cause, and the cleverness and gumption with which she would reach for it.

An excess of gumption may well have been the professional downfall of another of the recently deceased: former commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, who died on March 15th.

In his 15 years as commissioner, Kuhn saw the emergence of free agency (but fought against it), Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home-run (but wasn’t in the stands), and a strike-shortened season.

Mike Kupper, who wrote Kuhn's obit for the LA Times, surmised that he will be “best remembered for sitting in [only] his suit coat in 40-degree weather during the 1976 World Series.” Why did withstanding the chill of this night game in October prove so memorable? Not only was he decried in the press and by fans for changing the game’s start time to avoid a ratings war with NFL games on television (a charge he denied), Kuhn later acknowledged to having worn thermal underwear beneath his suit coat.

Along with op-ed and long-form narrative pieces, obituaries have a strong claim over creative prose in journalism. Sticking to the facts is honorable but, let’s face it, can make for dry reading. Lifeless, even.

A great obituary reaffirms life while talking about the dead.


LA Times Obits of Ida Honorof and Bowie Kuhn, respectively:
http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-honorof18mar18,0,7226426.story?coll=la-home-obituaries
http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-kuhn16mar16,1,1345354.story?coll=la-news-obituaries

Other Obit-Carriers of Interest:
The Daily Telegraph, London (www.telegraph.co.uk)
The Guardian, London (www.guardian.co.uk)
The Independent, London (www.independent.co.uk)
The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com; metro section)
The New York Sun (www.nysun.com; esp. by Stephen Miller)
The Oregonian (www.oregonlive.com/oregonian; “Life Stories”)
The Orange County Register (www.ocregister.com; esp. by Robin Hinch)



+ Comparing the Honorof and Kuhn obits in the print and on-line editions of the LA Times reveals a handicap the on-line version of any publication will have to reckon with: the use of space. In print, both obits insert an outsize portrait to go along with these outsized personalities. The pictures assume over one-half page of print space. No photos accompany the on-line obits. Down the line, latimes.com would benefit from ceding some ad space to graphics that will enhance and interact with the text. Until then, obit lovers: hang on to your subscriptions!


About the Writer

Matt Weston is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on Celebrate Life, Read the Obituaries

Log In To Vote   Score: 1
By Steven Lane on April 02, 2007 at 11:44 pm
Nice article, Matt. I ALWAYS check the obits, if my picture is there, I want to be one of the first to know.
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