RECALL LIFE & HISTORY
As defined by The American Heritage Dictionary, the word “obituary”
comes from the Latin word “obituaris” which means “a published notice of a
death sometimes with a brief biography of the deceased.”
Several weeks ago over lunch, Tribune editor David Clemons and I learned
we shared a mutual interest in obituaries. He
related to me about the death of one of his former employers, Sam Harvey, who
was editor for 47 years of the family-owned paper, The Advertiser-Gleam, in
Guntersville, Alabama. Mr. Harvey
died on April 18 at the age of 86. David
shared with me a photo of Mr. Harvey, standing behind a table that held a copy
of the newspaper along with his beloved Underwood desk-top typewriter.
David told me what a wonderful wordsmith Mr. Harvey was and the
beautiful, eloquent and descriptive obituaries he wrote for his paper about his
friends and other citizens in his hometown.
Mr. Harvey was most likely akin to our own late newspaper publishers
& editors Ernest Camp and Edward A. Caldwell, both esteemed wordsmiths and
lovers of the English Language. There used to be a story circulated about how
Editor Caldwell considered himself such a master of the word that he felt his
obituaries were worthy of getting anyone into Heaven.
When Mr. Ed was nearing the end of his life, he said he would have no
need of a minister at his funeral; he had prepared his own sermon/eulogy feeling
quite sure the words he had penned would garner him a pivotal place at the
Pearly Gates! David lamented to me
how badly he wanted to try his hand at writing obituaries while working for Mr.
Harvey but never got a chance.
Those who know me well know I have been collecting obituaries since I was
seven years old, the first ones being the obits of my paternal grandparents
along with my maternal grandfather in Roswell, all of whom died in 1953.
Being so young when my grandparents died, I did not know a lot about them
or what their place was in the community. When
my Monroe grandparents died their obituaries were displayed on the front page of
the Tribune. My father pulled me
onto his lap and read the tributes Editor Camp had penned of his friends, giving
a full depiction of their lives and the role they played in the Monroe
Wanting to hold onto these tributes of those who were special to me, I
placed them in an old cigar box of my father’s for safe-keeping.
In 1957 I added another one to this box; the obituary for my Great Aunt
Ruby, who died on August 3, 1957. In
1960 another obit found its way into the box, that of my neighbor and friend,
Tom Launius, who died on February 12, 1960 from a tragic car wreck in Athens
where he was a junior at the University of Georgia.
These obituaries were special to me in that while the persons were gone
from me physically, those long strips of newsprint continued to remind me of
them and what role they had played in the community along with giving a small
portrait of the role they played in the history of Monroe.
With the passing years I began adding the obits from the Tribune of
family friends my parents knew to the collection. Somewhere in the back of my
mind I must have realized these people played a significant role in Monroe’s
history and their stories needed to be preserved, not only by the families but
from a historical perspective.
When the cigar box was full, these obits were transferred to an
old-fashioned scrapbook, the pages made of construction paper.
When age deteriorated the pages the obits were transferred to notebook
paper and placed in ring binders which could contain hundreds of obits. From
there I began collecting obits of the famous, infamous, notorious and
scandalous. Whenever my eye would catch an interesting obit from the Atlanta
papers or the New York Times, these were added to the collection.
At some point lettered tabs were added to keep the obits in somewhat of
an alphabetical order.
My obituary collection today ranges in the thousands of entries with
boxes full of obits yet to add. I may have to enlist someone to help me get all
those waiting to be added before my own obit is placed in the latest binder!
What is the public’s curiosity with obits and how did it evolve? Many
folks admit they read the obits to see if there are friends they know listed
while others enjoy the stories contained in an obituary. During
my childhood years, the obits you would see in the Atlanta papers gave only
basic information: who the deceased was, the surviving family members, when the
funeral was to be held and where with the officiating minister(s), the names of
the pallbearers and where the internment was to be. The funeral home being used
was always the last to be mentioned.
Through the years, as the news focus changed, so did the obituaries in
the information they offered. Pete
Hamill, a former journalist and author made the following comments in his
introduction to “The Obits – 2012 Annual”, published by The New York
Times: “The cause of death, of course, is always life. What matters most is
the life and how it was lived.” Hamill
went on to say that there is a sense of finality to every obit, the fall of a
last curtain. When asked his definition of an obit he said, “An obit is made
of knowable facts. It is not a eulogy, pasty with oratory.
Nor is it an indictment. The obit says ‘here’s why this human was
important at the moment of the writing.”
More folks than you might imagine make a daily habit of reading the
obits, either in print form or on your Ipad or tablet.
If the person is someone you know, reading the obit is charged with a
certain amount of sorrow….it announces a permanent interruption between you
and the individual you knew.
When Kay Powell, former head of the obituary department for the Atlanta
Journal Constitution took charge of the office, we became friends right away. At
that time the paper decided to create on the obituary page what was called an
“obituary profile” on certain individuals of note or, depending on what type
of life they had, if it was of a significant or worthwhile nature, it would
become the profile of the day. Kay told me hundreds of obits would come across
her desk and along with her staff they would single out a particular obituary
for each day and get busy on the phone with family & friends, digging up all
the information they could along with a photograph to use.
Once all the information was obtained then came the daunting task of
transforming the information into a readable tribute, which at times could be a
It takes a special type of person to collect, assimilate and process the
information on a person into a story that brings the individual to life. Editors
Camp & Caldwell could do it, Sam Harvey could do it and anyone who has a
compassionate appreciation of their fellow man along with a good command of the
English language can turn the biographical and personal material into a tribute
worthy of the life led.
As Kay has told me time and again, “Every life has a story; some are
just more interesting than others.”
And, as the writer Malachy McCourt likes to say: “I come from a long
line of dead people with stories.”
As do we all.