“We assume a special attitude toward the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done. ... ”
If he were alive, Freud might take issue with Kathleen Dehmlow’s family.
In June, an obituary written by two of her children was published in the Redwood Falls (Minn.) Gazette. It stated that the 80-year-old woman, who died on May 31, had abandoned her children after she had an affair with her brother-in-law.
“She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”
Dehmlow’s frigid farewell, which was broadcast around the world, is just one example of how your 15 minutes of fame may arrive after you’re dead — if you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a viral obituary.
In the age of the internet, irreverent, uniquely affectionate, brutally honest and confessional death notices are increasingly becoming attention-getting click bait, especially if they’re well-written or heart-rending.
A recent first-person obituary by Iowa 5-year-old Garrett Matthias noted that he hated “dirty stupid cancer.”
“Funerals are sad,” Garrett said in his obituary, which gained national attention after he died July 6. “I want 5 bouncy houses (because I’m 5), Batman, and snowcones.”
Obituaries say much more than who died and where to send flowers. They hold a mirror up to the living, revealing what we think constitutes a well-lived life. They also present a cautionary tale of what not to do if you want to avoid a postmortem write-up that has you spinning in the grave.
Not able to craft a witty send-off on a deadline? No worries. There’s a small cottage industry of freelance writers you can hire to ghostwrite something lively about the dead.
While all happy families may be alike in not speaking ill of the dead, unhappy families now seem willing to air dirty laundry and settle scores in newsprint.
“No services will be held, there will be no prayers for eternal peace and no apologies to the family he tortured,” read a 2017 obituary published on a funeral home website ripping Leslie Ray “Popeye” Charping, a man from Galveston, Texas. “Leslie’s passing proves that evil does in fact die and hopefully marks a time of healing and safety for all.”
To be clear, these parting shots aren’t delivered in news or editorial obits, which are written by a disinterested reporter about a notable person. The poison pen send-offs are paid obits, essentially classified ads written by the family members willing to spend good money to publicize the passing of an unloved one in the newspaper.
Nigel Starck, a University of South Australia professor who has been studying and collecting obituaries from around the world for 25 years, said he’s noticed a small but apparent trend for “candid posthumous assessment of the hostile kind.”
“Manners and conventions across the board are changing — breaking down, even,” said Starck, the author of “Life After Death,” a history of obituaries. “Road rage, cyberbullying and using paid obituaries as acts of revenge: It’s all part of a shift in societal behavior.”
Susan Soper, an obituary ghostwriter from Atlanta who has created a guide to help families write death notices, agreed. “This is kind of the way of the world. There’s nothing off limits anymore.
“I think not speaking ill of the dead has been adhered to for a long time. But nothing is sacred anymore.”
Honesty vs. failings
Obituary scholars note that death from cancer and HIV/AIDS was once a taboo subject. Now obits are used as a way to raise awareness about these and other killers. In a move toward more openness and honesty, some death notices mention troubles with the law, drug addiction, depression and suicide.
“It’s part and parcel of this new ability to speak our minds about everything all the time,” said Janice Hume, a University of Georgia journalism professor and author of “Obituaries in American Culture.”
Many obit experts think it’s bad manners to use obituaries to bash people who aren’t around to defend themselves.
“It’s not a place to express grudges and failings,” said Florence Isaacs, a funeral etiquette blogger once described in the New York Times as “the Dear Abby of Death.”
“Once a person dies, no matter how much you hated them, game over. You’re alive. They’re dead,” said Donna Hoshide, an Arizona freelance obituary writer who has a license plate that reads “OBITS.”
But angry obituaries don’t always cast shade on the dead; they sometimes bad-mouth the living.
An obituary for Josie Anello in 2012 in the Tampa Bay Times noted, “She is survived by her Son, ‘A.J.’, who loved and cared for her; Daughter ‘Ninfa,’ who betrayed her trust, and Son ‘Peter,’ who broke her heart.” (Guess which son wrote that one.)
The target can even be an entire political party.
“Sue wanted her obituary to note that she was born Feb. 12, 1932, during a depression brought on by the Republican Party, and that she died on Jan. 13, 2015, during the recovery from a recession brought on by the Republican Party,” according to a death notice for an Idaho woman.
Some self-written obituaries have a confessional nature or exercise a freedom to say things difficult to express while alive
In his auto-obituary published in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2012, Val Patterson admitted that he didn’t actually have a doctoral degree and, “As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971.” (The obit also said his life motto was “Anything for a Laugh.”)
Astronaut Sally Ride used her death announcement to publicly reveal to the world that she was gay, acknowledging in her obituary on her educational website that she was survived by “her partner of 27 years.”
Always a moral
Thanks to social media, unflattering obituaries may be getting more visibility, but they’re not new, said Mark Alfano, an obituary expert and philosophy professor at Delft University of Technology and Australian Catholic University.
He cites an 1860 obituary titled “Death of a Noted Glutton” of a man who died after eating “a large Quantity of Cucumbers.”
Alfano said the negative ones are “extremely rare.” Using data mining techniques to study about 400,000 paid obituaries published in the United States between 2011 and 2015, he estimates that only about one in 10,000 obituaries speaks ill of the dead.
More negative obits would likely be published if newspapers (including the Star Tribune) dropped their policy of rejecting paid obituaries that give offense. But Alfano maintains that the vast majority of family-written obituaries strive to accentuate the positive, including only “the nicest things that someone can say about someone publicly.”
According to Alfano’s research, obits are a window into what society thinks of as virtuous qualities, the sort of life the rest of us should emulate.
Even negative obituaries often have some moral message for the living.
The bluntly frank obituary written for Sadie Riggs, a 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl who hanged herself: “For the bullies involved, please know you were effective in making her feel worthless. That is all between you and God now, but please know that it is not too late to change your ways.”
Obituaries that reveal some harsh truths about the dead can have value in inspiring the rest not to make the same mistakes, said Brigitte Ganger, head writer and editor of Beyond the Dash, a Canadian-based obituary site.
“Some people didn’t live well,” Ganger said. “Truth is more important now than glossing over uncomfortable realities.”
A tangible memory
There’s one thing that doesn’t yet need an obituary: the obituary itself.
Even though a person’s passing can be announced instantly and free on Facebook, paid newspaper obituaries (often the first and last time someone’s name will appear in a paper) aren’t dying off.
Obituaries “constitute some of the most popular and widely searched-for content on newspaper websites,” according to a 2009 study done at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
A modest paid newspaper obituary can cost several hundred dollars. Still, Steve Yaeger, chief marketing officer for the Star Tribune, said “we’ve seen little falloff in the volume of obituaries.”
Adam Bernstein concurs. “It’s still an enormous business. It’s a huge source of revenue,” said the news obituary editor at the Washington Post and president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers.
It could be that changing tastes in funeral arrangements are helping to keep the old-fashioned newspaper obituary alive.
Kevin Waterston, general manager of the Cremation Society of Minnesota, said most people who die in Minnesota today are being cremated. Perhaps their families are spending the money they’re saving on coffins to publish death notices, he said.
Even if it’s just a few inches of newsprint, a paid obituary is a tangible memorial that can potentially be seen by more people than will ever visit a typical headstone, he said.
Hoshide, the Arizona obituary writer, has written her mother’s obituary, her own obituary and her siblings’ obituaries, although they’re still alive. She even did one for her cat, which did die. It cost $75 to publish the obit of Mia (“survived by pet-sister Darby”) in the local paper with a color photo. But it was worth it, Hoshide said.
“I cut it out and framed it,” she said. “It’s on my mantel.”