What’s in Your Obit? Op-Ed

| 13 Oct 2015 | 11:19

I was joining Gloria for lunch at a 53rd Street restaurant.

She was reading The New York Times’ obituaries when I sat down at the table.

When a child, she recalled, the obits were called “The Irish Sports Page” and were read first to see “who had died and where to send the family’s condolences.”

She reckoned the best obit writers today were the British, especially at the Economist. The weekly magazine’s final page recognized the passing of some recently deceased internationally known notable and was written with verve, research and insight. She thought it the best in the world.

Her choice for the best in the U.S. was the Times. If deemed once famous, your obituary was prepared by their professionals at no charge. She felt their writers took time to write suitable and informative obituaries about some of the remarkable people who had recently died.

The rest of us pay for a Times obituary. She told me the Times charges $236 for a one-time appearance of a four-line (25 characters per line) memorial or death notice. Adding an obituary picture costs $1,200 and the longest allowed obituary or death notice is 245 lines and costs $12,000. One buys the space by contacting the classified advertising department.

I asked how many “beloveds” were allowed? I assume there is a maximum number of “beloveds” the paper permits since they only allow 245 lines for the longest placed obituary. She thought I would have to call the newspaper.

She wondered what Freud would say about buying space and entering sufficient “beloveds” in a purchased newspaper advertisement obituary on this the centennial of his Mourning and Melancholia?

But Gloria thought instead of a newspaper obituary, it would be more effective to address a larger audience and so she planned to make a memorial gift to PBS. Then, she observed, your name is mentioned as a benefactor regularly before one of their BBC shows.

Newspapers, like people, are time sensitive and time dependent, but less so is PBS, as long as there is a BBC.

She also observed the Christian Scientist verb “to pass away” had replaced the traditional verb “to die.” She thought that was unfortunate as it seem to describe the death event as some vague transition rather than as a definite finality. She hoped it was only a current erratic euphemism, another ephemeral fad.

She noted with some sadness the obit “lost leaders”: people like C.S. Lewis who was given obit short shrift because he died the same day John Kennedy was assassinated and so missed his proper placement in obit history. An ironic event for the Christian chronicler of Narnia, Gloria suggested.

Pancho Villa was said to say while dying “Do not let it end like this, tell them I said something.” And, she recalled, the ever-popular printed epitaph supposedly from Key West—“I told you I was sick.”

Before he died in 1981, the writer William Saroyan asked: “Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

Now what indeed?

In 1992, Timothy Leary of LSD fame said: “Death? Get that one out of the appointment book.” It was not fashionable to talk of death then. Boomers were supposed to be somehow immortal.

Dr. Leary died of prostate cancer in 1996 and chose cremation over cryonics; he had his ashes shot into space, but some six years later his rocket fell from orbit and disintegrated. “A curious resolution to his revolution,” she noted.

Asked about her thoughts on her own memorial column, she said she detested the recent business of selling and buying obit space under the auspices of a newspaper’s advertising department and especially the obligatory smiling pictures of the deceased often taken a generation earlier than the time of death.

However, she did not want her middle-aged children to improperly present her Times obituary so she had prepared and prepaid her own memorial statement. She said her picture was “somewhat current” and deemed her print obituary “accurate.”

I was delighted by the idea of preparing your own obit memorial as one now can prepay for the services of the undertaker, the funeral home and the cemetery.

“What is in your obituary?” I asked Gloria.

She said I would have to wait and see—and then asked me:

“What will be in yours?”