The Haunting Stories an Obituary Can Tell

Tombstones tell stories known only to cemeteries and obituary writers.
Tombstones tell stories known only to cemeteries and obituary writers.

SOME OBITUARY WRITERS I have known can be, shall we say, rather unique.

Oh, all right, maybe one or two might best be described as weird.

But that is understandable. Theirs is a stressful, demanding, haunting calling, requiring special skills, patience and caring.

So much so that to reduce the stress, some of them have been known to remind themselves that the first three letters in the word funeral is fun.

Not only must the obituary writer deal with the sadness of death but with the loss, bereavement and even anger that can accompany it.

One particular incidence of sadness came in the mail at one newspaper.

A young woman wrote and sent in her own obit.

At the bottom of her obit she added that by the time the newspaper received the obit she would be dead.

At her own hand.

And she was.

That was especially traumatic for the obit writer assigned to it.

Roger Summers
Roger Summers

Most obits, of course, are not like that.

Most tell a story of lives of fulfillment, accomplishment, creativity, commitment.

And therein lies reason for would-be writers to read obituaries. Give them close attention.

For they can be a source of ideas that can become sentences and paragraphs and short stories and essays and novels.

A somewhat routine obit once told me of a man of about seventy who was retired from his work of paving county roads.

Just an average obit about an average person, it might be said.

Name. Age. Occupation. Education. Church affiliation. Funeral services. Survivors.

A lifetime reduced to a handful of words.

But one line in this particular obit caught my attention.

It said the man’s passion was raising prize chickens.

That sent my imagination into overtime.

Decades on a county road crew must have been draining, demanding, perhaps even dulling.

So I tried to imagine the restorative satisfaction, the fulfillment, the joy he got after work with his hobby.

Surely it gave him some modicum of recognition, usefulness – if not escapism — from the dreariness of his workaday world.

Maybe he won a plaque, a certificate now and then in some prize chicken competition.

Maybe that was his way of being creative.

Maybe that was his art.

In any event, that line in that obit later became one element of a character in one of my short stories.

Like others who would write, I look always for words, comments – written and spoken – that might spark an idea for a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, a story.

They come in unexpected places, in unexpected moments.

We know they are there in newspapers.

But what we may not always consider is the possibility of the idea in the obituary in the newspaper.

This very morning over coffee our daughter pointed out to me these words in an obituary in the newspaper we were reading:

“. . . Those wishing to honor her memory can be generous, be kind and keep a song in their hearts.”

My mind is off and running.

Running top speed in the direction of the keyboard.

I feel an essay coming on.

Roger Summers is a journalist, essayist and author. He spends time in Texas, New Mexico and England.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Heart Songs From a Washboard Road, the short story collection of Roger Summers.

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