Paul Wesslund

We’re loving life these days—for proof, just look at the obituaries

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One sign that a pandemic has us paying more attention to the value of our lives is that we seem to be paying more attention to deaths.

A story in The Washington Post reports that on May 3 the The Boston Globe ran 23 pages of obituaries—16 more than on a comparable date a year ago. The Seattle Times has reassigned reporters to write about deaths. When The Post talked to the Chicago Sun-Times, that paper said it wasn’t so much the number of obituaries that’s changed, but that a lot of them were a lot longer.

The obituary that got rejected

That brought to mind my dad’s death 11 years ago and my work with my siblings to craft his obituary. We wanted to celebrate his character, and acknowledge his career as part of the beginnings of computers. In the 1960s he worked for Control Data, a Minnesota company known for making the first and biggest computers in the world. At the time what now fits into our pocket phones took up a whole floor of a large building, with miles of multi-colored electrical wires running under the floor panels. My dad even got a patent for some technical computer innovation I could never even begin to understand. 

Our small family group handed the obit we’d drafted across the funeral home director’s desk for him to place in the newspaper. He read it, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and spoke to us in carefully chosen words, trying to soften the blow of more bad news to a grieving family. Our obituary was extremely too long, he advised. We weren’t concerned about the cost, the charges for the length of the obit would be a fraction of what we had just spent on a casket. But our tribute, he said, would be much, much longer than anything else in the paper.

We took it back and did some rewriting, but we were only willing to take out a few sentences. We put our feet down this time with the funeral home director. This was our dad. We would not make it any shorter, no matter how out of place that might look.

The next day we opened the paper and there, next to the tribute to my dad, was the obituary for a university professor that was twice as long.

I took a couple of lessons from that. One was that, as a writer, any kind of writer, you should trust your voice. Oh sure, use an editor, get a variety of critical comments, but use those to improve, not muffle, your unique message to the world.

The other lesson is that we need to make sure we celebrate people’s lives. It’s often said that we shouldn’t wait for a funeral to tell people how great we think they are, and that’s true. But until we change our whole culture, what we know how to do is bring casseroles to the reception, deliver heartfelt eulogies at the memorial service, and summarize their lives in the newspaper. So let’s do that and do it with joy.

The opera singer who became Tarzan superfan

A couple months ago I opened the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper to an obituary that took up an entire broadsheet page.

George Turberville McWhorter sang at the National Cathedral at the age of 4 and went on to a career in opera, interrupted for a time by service in the Army. When his vocal cords became paralyzed he developed a new interest, becoming the first professionally trained rare books librarian at the University of Louisville. That led to a special focus on Edgar Rice Burroughs (for the less scholarly among us, that’s the creator of Tarzan, among other literary achievements).

A full-page obit celebrated the life of George Turberville McWhorter.

McWhorter created Burroughs events, a newsletter, and a collection in a room with synthetic grass he brought in to create a more jungle-like floor. He consulted with Disney on its animated Tarzan movie. McWhorter’s ashes were to be put in an urn made by his sister, showing Tarzan swinging in the trees, and was to become part of the collection at the University of Louisville Rare Books collection.

Especially now, when we can’t be coming together like we used to for laughing and crying over lives lived and lost, we’re finding other ways to shout about what family, friends, and really everyone, means to us.

I’m not familiar with some of the high-profile grieving traditions like the second-line jazz funerals (though I love the music) and Irish wakes. But like many of us, I’m sure, I’m much more familiar with obituaries. In my first newspaper job I would occasionally assist the obit writers, where I learned valuable lessons in accuracy—it taught me you never want to make even the smallest mistake in the official, lasting version of a person’s life. For some, it might have been the only time their name ever appeared in the newspaper.

And for a lesson in how to celebrate a life, take a page, literally, from George Turberville McWhorter.

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