I read in a trade publication last week that Gerry Hostetler, who retired in 2008 from the Charlotte, N.C., Observer, where she conceived and wrote the obituary column, “It’s a Matter of Life,” had died.
Yes, she wrote her own obituary column – her final story – as she had done for so many others.
In 1978, she started in the Observer’s newsroom as a part-time obit clerk and wrote free obits until 1996, when they became classified advertisements. Before fax machines and email, obits were telephoned in by funeral homes. “We had to type fast,” Gerry noted, “very fast.”
I understood. My first job on a daily newspaper involved writing obits — actually, I was an obituary typer — some nights filling a whole page with death notices and full blown obituaries, complete with two dozen survivors, and services.
As my first city editor noted, the assignment was to teach me speed and accuracy. “Just wait until you leave some woman out of the list of survivors of her father’s obit,” he warned. “Then you will understand how important your work is.”
I laughed to myself. The laughter was premature. A daughter was omitted from her father’s obit several weeks later. I apologized for what seemed like hours and send the corrected obit back again, but didn’t forget the lesson.
Today obits come directly from the funeral home by Internet. The errors now are those of the funeral director or a family member with a poor memory.
You learn to develop an affinity for obits. For many individuals their name makes the news columns three times — when they are born, when they are married and when they die. It should be done right.
Now families often write the obits with the aid of a funeral director.
Personalized obituaries open a window into the person’s life that you just cannot get from the form obituaries.
You may even see a favorite pet listed among the survivors.
However, some family members are carried away when it comes to euphemisms for death and can’t seem to say someone had died.
One longtime journalist who died in 2009 after a long battle with brain cancer, wrote his obit — at least part of it, tongue firmly planted in cheek — after receiving the fatal diagnosis. It began:
“So this is it. I have shuffled loose the mortal coil. My soul has been hurled into the great void. I am taking the proverbial dirt nap. I bought the farm. I kicked the bucket. I have checked out. Crossed the River Styx. Bought a pine condo. Ceased to be. I am wandering the Elysian Fields. Gone belly up. Checked out. Cashed in. Sleeping with the fishes. Danced the last dance. Run down the curtain. I am pushing daisies. I have joined the choir invisible. I have paid Charon’s fare. I have succumbed. I have sprouted wings. I am history. I am dead.”
I recommend that individuals write their own obituaries, leaving blanks for the time and place of death for the funeral director to fill in.
It will give you an opportunity to get in the last word.
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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (870) 329-7010.