OBITS 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 community.

          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 challenging effort.

          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.