Dealing delicately with death

(Cliff Larimer, longtime California newspaperman, graciously gave me permission to post the following — an alternately touching, curmudgeonly and hilarious chapter from a book in progress.  It brought back memories of writing obits as a cub reporter in the late Sixties on the local paper in Redding, California. Thanks, Cliff!):

Some/all of you may have seen this in some form. What follows is the way it will appear in that book I am polishing when I’m not filling the bird feeders or watching the drug dealers who live behind us … well, I don’t know if they deal drugs, but they are trashy folk … and mostly kind to dogs and cats.
Given that friends and acquaintances are toppling like dominos, it’s a good thing to run this by many on my fogey list while they are still upright enough to read it or have it read to them.
And I ain’t feelin’ too good myself.
IN THE SEPTEMBER 2013 North Valley Voice, the following essay took up a good portion of the issue. I thought it was crackerjack writing, informational, educational and entertaining. I decided it needed a larger audience than I had for the Voice, so I shipped it to Sacramento Valley Mirror. Publisher and Editor Tim Crews printed it.
Well, no he didn’t. He printed about half of it.
All of it follows:
Of late, I have been made aware that my body is not being all that nice to me anymore. Too many hurts, too many aches and pains that aren’t responding to medications and various healing remedies.
For now, I’m sitting on a porch deep in the south of Texas, bloodied but unbowed and keeping an expert rifleman’s eye out for the Grim Reaper. But when you’ve living on the constant damp that is Houston, it’s sometimes damn hard to keep your powder dry.
THE OTHER DAY, one of the worst human beings on the planet finally croaked. This was a bad man. And while his reach was not as widespread as Hitler, Stalin, Attilla, Mussolini, Tojo, Putin, Tito, Ghengis Kahn, etc., he had no heart.
Fidel Castro deserves no accolades.
Some world leaders said nice things about him. He was worth not a one of them.
It did remind me that my time is about up. I was working at the Willows Journal back in the days of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. That is getting to be one hell of a long time ago. Not one individual who was with me those days at the Journal is still alive. Not one. Just me.
I think about death. I don’t dwell on it any more than I do several hundred other things. But I have given thought to what my obituary will be like. I’ve lived one hell of an interesting life.
Do I wanted it fluffed up and recounted in the newspapers … if any still exist when I’m beckoned to that Big City Room in the Sky? Or should there be a simple death notice?
I’d like to settle for something in between. What my ghost will have to accept is whatever someone else decides, because ashes in (I hope) a Maxwell House or old Hills Brothers coffee can don’t have much of a say.
I’ve written my own obituary. Two of them. I also penned a eulogy. Damn, but I got tears in my eyes when I came across it a few days back.
What you’re getting here is that essay I wrote back in 2013.
Here lies Lester Moore,
Four Slugs From a .44;
No Les No More.
         — Boot Hill, Tombstone, Arizona
TWO CATEGORIIES OF PEOPLE live for the day you die, and depend on your demise for their livelihoods.
The oldest is obvious. Morticians.
The men and women who own or work in funeral parlors. There’s never a shortage of customers and never a shortage of bereaved family members or friends who without protest plunk down huge sums for varying kinds of sarcophagi or urns and little plots of ground to place them on or lower them into, usually after a funeral and/burial that means more money for the friendly undertakers, along with a few bucks for the priest or minister who says mostly kind words
The other group goes mostly unnoticed. That’s the men and women who own a newspaper or newspapers. They extract an ever-growing part of their incomes from the recently departed’s family members or friends who purchase space to tell you and me about mom, or dad, baby Herkimer, Uncle Waldo, Grandma Agnes, a brother, a sister.
In decades past, newspapers of all sizes printed – mostly gratis – obituaries of anyone, with some important souls perhaps being allotted more ink or even actual news stories announcing their departures and the reasons for them.
That “reason” part clearly differentiated news from the obituaries which more often than not didn’t and still don’t inform the reader of what sent the departed over to the other side.
Someone noted – damned if I can remember who – that the average person’s name will appear in the newspaper only three times over their lifetime. When they are born. When they marry. When they die. That was the case when your hometown paper was a “paper of record” and the only vital statistic some of them chose to overlook was divorces granted. Behave yourself and there’ll only be three clippings in the family scrapbook.
WHEN I STARTED OUT in the newspaper profession, obituary information was most often provided by the mortuary, sometimes by family. The funeral parlor and/or the grieving family worked from a form that when filled out contained sufficient information for some poor wretch low on the newsroom totem pole to crank out a standard story. Where they were born, name, address, age, date of death and where he or she was when they went to meet their maker. What she or he did for a living. What clubs, organization and what church they belonged to. Close family survivors, names of close relatives whose own preceded the decedent on the trip to glory. Time and place of services. Where to send “remembrances.”
If you were the poor devil stuck with writing the obits, you got to where you could crank them out nearly by rote.
This, obviously, is a generalization. Late in the 19th and through part of the early 20thcentury, some papers wrote long, lengthy, colorful, often patronizing obituaries.
TWO THINGS STRANGE about the death drill for several decades. Obituaries seldom told you what caused the deceased to be deceased.
Car wreck? Cancer? Fall off a ladder? Heart attack? Gunshot wound? The obit wouldn’t say.
Just the facts.  Except that one.
In obits, editors visited upon the deceased a respect not shown if the name appeared anywhere else in the news hole.
Joe Jones gets plugged by the coppers coming out of the bank he just robbed. In the news story the miscreant is “Jones.” When his obit appears the next day, he has become “Mr. Joseph Jones” on first references and “Mr. Jones” in all others.
Some major publications do use the Mr., Mrs., Ms., in all references and it comes off stiff and affected.
This essay is a generalization, because there are some exceptions to the rule. In the northern part of this state, the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows absurdly follows New York Times style and even turns bad guys into Mr. in straight news stories.
It also uses Mr. and Mrs. on second references and it is indeed stiff and affected, but what the hell.  His paper.
Tim Crews prints whatever is submitted, gratis, which ends up with some doozy claims by the bereaved.
BORN 1903-DIED 1942
IN THOSE GOLDEN DAYS of journalism, some small papers did print wordy obits, but most did not. Unless you paid for the space.
If you plunked down the dollars, the publisher would (still will) print anything submitted at so much an inch or a word. Some ran a line above or below the story, “Paid Obituary” in small, small type. Most chose to just put the money in the till.
Eventually, the publishers figured out they could charge for every obituary, whether submitted by the mortuary or a grieving family.  Free obituaries were relegated to yellowed copies in the newspapers’ morgues. To salve conscience and to continue to give some appearance of noting all deaths, most will print at least a brief paragraph at no cost. Who died. The services. Not much else. You want more about your loved one, you dip into your wallet and pay dearly for dear words about your dear departed.
The obituary is one guaranteed source of advertising revenue and today’s newspapers need every penny they can squeeze out of the dead and living.
ALWAYS A FASCINATING PART of a paper, obits have become entertaining, informational, fascinating and provide a means of “closure” for families. Also for some it affords at least a transparent chance to sugarcoat the life of someone who was a rotten apple.
They make a terrific contribution to our history. Researches and the swelling ranks of people tracing their ancestry have always gone to obituary pages for information.
The new, improved obits too often skirt the truth, muddle the facts, fabricate history and remake the decedent into a far better, far kinder, more respected. More successful … a bunch more mores and fars.
In  most city rooms, reports are told from the first day to avoid softening the facts with soft words. Dogs are euthanized, not put to sleep. Cattle, sheep and chickens are not harvested; they are slaughtered or killed.  
People die or are killed.
On the obituary page, few of the departed died or were killed. That remains the case. They pass away, go to be with the Lord, are called by the Heavenly Father ….
ONE OF MY MINOR AMUSEMENTS is to turn to the obit page of a major newspaper, or save up a few from the smaller sheets, then go through each obituary to find out how and/or why the subject is no long among us.
A few do die, but not many are treated that jarringly in print.
The people who pay for the space say:
— Passed away (a favorite)
— Passed away peacefully (Lots of these; I always wonder how anyone can know that.)
— Passed away unexpectedly (We all expect to die.)
— Passed away suddenly
— Passed away quietly
— Died suddenly (That might be a better choice than unexpectedly.)
— Passed suddenly (Avoids the “die” word.)
— Entered rest
— Entered into rest
— Quietly slipped away
— Died peacefully
— Died of natural causes (I have never found a suitable definition of “natural causes.”)
— Departed with dignity
— Our Heavenly Father welcomed home a new angel
— A beautiful story has come to an end
— Went home to be with the Lord
— Earned her angel wings
— The world lost an exceptional human being
— Was called to her heavenly home (Do religions other than Christianity do this? I don’t see Buddha and Allah beckoning believers home, at least not in paid obituaries. Satan gets nary a nod, but I find it hard to believe he’s sitting in Hell playing video games, given how many if not all of us tell someone or other to go to Hell with great regularity.)
… Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays. How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?  — Mark Twain
AS FOR CAUSES OF DEATH, they are mostly avoided in print, except for:
In a long and valiant battle with … Long and courageous battle … Lost his/her struggle with … Courageous battle with …
Seems acceptable to mention cancer. Sometimes you learn it was a heart attack or stroke, but rarely do the parting words ever say it was suicide or homicide or even that the parachute failed to open.
The departed is gone because of a drug overdose, AIDS, jaywalking, being hit by a train, falling out a window or off a bar stool? Not likely you’ll read about it in the obituary.
Simple sleuthing can sometimes provide a clue.
Go to the bottom of the obituary to see where the family wants you to send “remembrances.” If it says Alzheimers’ Association, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, American Lung Association or the Betty Ford Clinic … you’ve got the idea.
AGE 102
READING THE ADORATION and adulation that is heaped on the lately departed, you have to wonder what she or he was really like. The printed words are many times in stark contrast with the actual deeds. That has come home to me often when I’ve read the words the people pay publishers to write.
Some translations:
He was an animal lover – He bet on the ponies.
He served his country during World War II – He was a cook in an Army chow hall at a base in Omaha.
Children flocked to him – He did time for that.
She cooked delicious Italian meals – The family learned to put up with canned Franco American spaghetti.
Mother loved to relate tales from her childhood – to the point where her family came close to going nuts from the hearing the damn things over and over again.
He nearly always had a big smile for everyone – He was shitfaced drunk most of the time.
She married her childhood sweetheart – Had to. He knocked her up.
She had a passion for great food and drink – Even the trips to health spas rehab centers couldn’t keep her dried out and under 250 pounds.
A Scout leader, he enjoyed summer camps and encouraging young men to do their best – Officials filed charges, but he was never convicted.
He and his loving wife had three children – None of them looked a hell of a lot like him.
He liked taking chances – He pissed away most of his money on the 21 tables in Reno and Las Vegas.
Her inner beauty shone through – Good thing, because she was uglier than a mud fence.
SOMETIMES WHERE THE OBITUARY says the deceased asked that no service be held it’s because the departed was such a son-of-a-bitch that hardly anyone would have showed up, other than family and the paid preacher.
Most of us are destined to be sent off into whatever is or is not beyond with soft words … words written by others without our perusal or approval. That’s not always the case. I personally want no extraneous words. Just let the curious know who I was, what I did, and the date I quit doing it.
Exceptions to the rule
The following paid obit appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal and became a hot internet item. It was yanked from the website within a short time because the Reno paper is owned by the same gutless folks who own the Chico and Red Bluff dailies. They took their money and ran, I suspect. I’m betting their lawyers had something to do with that.
Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick
Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick born Jan.  4, 1935, and died alone on Aug. 30, 2013. She is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible. While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.
On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the afterlife reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.
Most of us have found peace in helping those who have been exposed to child abuse and hope this message of her final passing can revive our message that abusing children is unforgiveable, shameless, and should not be tolerated in a “humane society.” Our greatest wish now, is to stimulate a national movement that mandates a purposeful and dedicated war against child abuse in the United States of America.
The following story from the Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner on September 12, 2013, tells it:
Children of abusive mother
Bash her in scathing obituary
RENO, Nev. – The children of an abusive woman whose horror stories prompted Nevada to become one of the first states to allow children to sever parental ties wrote a scathing obituary that was published in the local newspaper – and has since become an Internet sensation.
The obituary opened with a harsh statement about the legacy of Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick: “On behalf of her children who she abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the after-life reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty and shame that she delivered on her children.”
Katherine Reddick said she wrote it about her mother, who died at a Reno nursing Home Aug. 30 at the age of 78.
Now a psychology consultant for a school district outside Austin, Texas, she said she decided to share the story of their painful physical and mental abuse after consulting with her brother, Patrick Reddick. They said they grew up with four siblings in a Carson City orphanage after they were removed from their mother’s home and had been estranged from her for more than 30 years.
“Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit,” the obit said. “Our greatest wish now is to stimulate a national movement that mandates a purposeful and dedicated war against child abuse in the United State of America.”
Six of Johnson-Reddick’s eight were admitted to the Nevada Children’s Home from 1963 to 1964 after they endured regular beatings, sometimes with a metal-tipped belt, and other abuse at the hands of their mother, Patrick 
Reddick said.
Patrick Reddick said he’s had phone calls from “all over the world” after his mother’s obituary went viral.
“Everything in there was completely true,” the Minden man told The Associated Press on Thursday, describing her as a “wicked, wicked witch.” “The main purpose for putting it in there was to bring awareness to the child abuse. And shame her a little bit.”
Patrick Reddick, 58, said he last saw his mother more than three decades ago.
Reddick and his sister, now 57, testified before the 1987 Legislature on bills to make courts give equal consideration to the best interest of a child when terminating parental rights.
Former state Sen. Sue Wagner, who authored the legislation that ultimately was signed into law, remembers meeting with them at the time. She told KOLO-TV in Reno that it was one of the reasons Nevada become one of few states to address the issue at the time.
The obituary was printed in Tuesday’s editions of the Reno Gazette-Journal and appeared on after was submitted through a self-service online portal.
John Maher, president and publisher of the newspaper, said in a “note to readers” that the paper had “removed the online listing of this obituary as we continue our review of the circumstances surrounding its placement.”
Little else is known about the woman. The Reno newspaper reported that she lived in a mobile home with 15 cats until she was hospitalized in May with bladder cancer.
In the Salt Lake Tribune in July 2012:
   SALT LAKE CITY – I was born in Salt Lake City, March 27, 1953. I died of throat cancer on July 10, 2012. I went to six different grade schools, then to Churchill, Skyline and the U of U. I loved school, Salt Lake City, the mountains, Utah.
I was a true Scientist, Electronics, Chemistry, physic, auto mechanic, wood worker, artist, inventor, business man, ribald comedian, husband, brother, son, cat lover, cynic. I had a lot of fun.
It was an honor for me to be friends with some truly great people. I thank you. I’ve had great joy living and playing with my dog, my cats and my parrot. But, the one special thing that made my spirit whole is my long love and friendship with my remarkable wife, my beloved Mary Jane. I loved her more than I have words to express. Every moment spent with my Mary Jane was time spent wisely.
Over time, I became one with her, inseparable, happy, fulfilled. I enjoyed one good life. Traveled to every place on earth that I ever wanted to go. Had every job that I wanted to have. Learned all that I wanted to learn. Fixed everything I wanted to fix. Eaten everything I wanted to eat.
My life motto was “Anything for a laugh.” Other mottos were “If you can break it, I can fix it.” “Don’t apply for a job, create one.”
I had three requirements for seeking a great job: 1 – All glory, 2 – Top pay, 3 – No work.
Now that I have gone to my reward, I have confessions and things I should now say. As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971. I could have left that unsaid, but I wanted to get it off my chest.
Also, I really am NOT a PhD. What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the University of Utah, the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD. Diploma came in the mail. I didn’t even graduate. I only had about 3 years of college credit.
In fact, I never did even learn what the letters “PhD” even stood for.
For all of the electronic engineers I have worked with, I’m sorry, but you have to admit my designs always worked very well, and were well engineered, and I always made you laugh at work.
Now to the really mean Park Ranger – after all, it was me that rolled those rocks into your geyser and ruined it. I did notice a few years later that you did get Old Faithful working again.
To Disneyland – you can now throw away that “Banned for Life” file you have on me; I’m not a problem anymore – and SeaWorld San Diego, too, if you read this.
To the gang: We grew up in the very best time to grow up in the history of America. The best music, muscle cars, cheap gas, fun kegs, buying a car for “a buck a year” – before Salt Lake got ruined by over population and Lake Powell was brand new. TV was boring back then, so we went outside and actually had lives. We always tried to have as much fun as possible without doing harm to anybody – we did a good job at that.
If you are trying to decide if you knew me, this might help … My father was RD “Dale” Patterson, older brother “Stan” Patterson, and sister “Bunny” who died in a terrible car wreck when she was a Junior at Skyline. My mom “Ona” and brother “Don” are still alive and well. In college I worked at Vaughns Conoco on 45th South and 29th East. Mary Jane and I are the ones who worked in Saudi Arabia for 8 years when we were young. Mary Jane is now a Fitness Instructor at Golds on Van Winkle – you might be one of her students – see what a lucky guy I am? Yeah, no kidding.
My regret is that I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me. Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with such happy words and moments.
My pain is enormous, but it pales in comparison to watching my wife feel my pain as she lovingly cares for and comforts me. I feel such the “thief” now – for stealing so much from her – there is no pill that can erase that pain.
If you knew me or not, dear reader, I am happy you got this far into my letter. I speak as a person who had a great life to look back on. My family is following my wishes that I not have a funeral or burial. If you knew me, remember me in your own way. If you want to live forever, then don’t stop breathing, like I did.
In a Wyoming newspaper in September 2008
DOUGLAS – A celebration of life for James William “Jim” Adams will be held at a later date.
He died Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008, at Memorial Hospital of Converse County in Douglas.
Jim, who had tired of reading obituaries noting other’s courageous battle with this or that disease, wanted it known that he had lost his battle.
It was primarily a result of being stubborn and not following doctor’s orders or maybe for just living life a little too hard for better than five decades.
He was born June 8, 1955, in Garrison, N.D.
He was sadly deprived of his final wish, which was to be run over by a beer truck on the way to a liquor store to buy booze for a date. True to his personal style, he spent his final hours joking with medical personnel, cussing and begging for narcotics and bargaining with God to look over his loving dog, Biscuit, and his family.
He would like to thank all “his ladies” for putting up with him the last 30 years.
During his life, he excelled at anything he put his mind to. He loved to hear and tell jokes and spin tales of grand adventures he may or may not have had.
He is survived by five sons … two ex-wives … four grandchildren; two nieces and two great-nieces ….
In lieu of flowers, he asks that you make a sizeable purchase at your favorite watering hole, get rip-roaring drunk and tell the stories he no longer can.
… Great words to die by. Or pass away by. Or …
Some more stones from bone orchards:
DIED OCT 10TH, 1887

(Then Larimer emailed this coda, which also resonated with me, having had a somewhat similar experience in my second newspaper job):

One obit story — When I was working for the Salinas Californian back in those same 1960s, we had a woman who wrote all the obits. Dorothy Vera. She had gone to school with John Steinbeck which may have been her only claim to fame. She loved the obits, loved calling the families and … yuck. We were pleased, because it meant none of the others of us had to make the calls, etc.
She was on vacation. The youngest reporter got the obit duty. He hated it.There was this fatal auto accident overnight. A teenager was killed. Our cop shop guy got the details from the CHP, filed it, then the city editor told the kid to contact to call the family to find out which mortuary was handling, etc.
The kid called. Short conversation. He hung up the phone and walked over to my desk where I was talking with Eric Brazil, another reporter. The kid was ashen. He’d made the call, and the boy’s mother had answered the phone. Only she did not know her son had been killed. She went into hysterics. Someone at the CHP had screwed up, we learned later.
Anyway, the kid said to the newsroom crowd he would never, never, never write another obituary again. Then he went into the ME’s office and repeated the vow. He also said he didn’t think he was all that hot about newspaper work, not after that phone call. He was gone a couple of months later. As I recall, he went back to school to study something other than journalism.
Well, hell, I’m still writing them, sort of, when some Willows classmate from the olden days expires. 2200 words in tomorrow’s Daily Mirror. Dean Hinshaw. You may have known him. He taught psychology at Shasta College for 40 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s