Writing An Obituary

Guest Post by Kathy Crowley

Robert White, obituaries editor, The Guardian:

“What makes a good obituary? A good story about a good person.”

Selma Koch, famed brassiere maven; published in The New York Times, 14 June 2003:

“Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Centre.  She was 95 and a 34B.”

An obituary: The writing assignment you’d rather not have.

Or at least, not this particular one, an obituary for my mother.

My family has been lucky, in a way.  The illness or death of a parent can reawaken long dormant grudges, reinvigorate jealousies and rivalries, bring siblings to one another’s throats.  I’ve seen it happen at the hospital too many times. A patient is tired and ill and on the very threshold of death, and yet his or her children come after one another as though fighting will get mom or dad to sit up again and snap at them, “Don’t make me get out of this bed…”

My brothers and I have been on the same page ever since my mother became ill.  My older brother has managed the biggest piece of it, but we have all shared in the work one way or another.  Since I’m the only physician among us, my part was straightforward.  I talked to the doctors who treated her, the woman who ran the day program she attended, the aides who dispensed her meds and, of late, Danielle, the hospice nurse.

And now that she is, as Danielle put it, “actively dying,” there is a new set of tasks.

“Would you mind doing the first pass at an obituary?” my brother asked yesterday.

This makes sense, too.  After all, I am the one who runs around calling herself a writer.  This should be my job. I know that.

So I pull up old death notices and obits to guide me.  Death notices are formulaic in a way that is almost soothing.

Curtis, Richard L.

MALDEN

In Malden formerly of Cambridge Aug. 25. Richard L. Beloved husband of Judith (Jennings). Devoted father of John G. of Malden, Todd M. of Malden & the late Richard L. Jr. Dear son of John Curtis & the late Naomie (Martins) Curtis. Brother of Gloria Beaux of Ind. Loving grandfather of Joshua Curtis. Funeral Services at the Carroll Funeral Home, 721 Salem St., Maplewood Sq., MALDEN, Tues. at 10:AM. Visiting hrs. Mon. 4-8 PM. Late Vietnam Navy Veteran. Interment in Forestdale Cemetery, Malden.

The person, the people he loved, the people who loved him back—and where to find them.

Obituaries are more ambitious – they try to tell a story, capture a spirit. The story that’s before me right now is my mother’s illness and impending death – her arms so thin I can circle them with my thumb and forefinger, the hollows behind her clavicles so deep I feel like I can see all the way to her heart, her eyes closed no matter how many times I call her name or touch her shoulder.  But the obituary should be a story about her life, not her death.

So, which story? The one about a girl born to an Irish orphan and a German immigrant?  The one about the determined young woman who paid her way through college by waitressing at resorts for the well-to-do, some of whom she encountered later in life as she and my father climbed out of the blue-collar and into the white-collar world? Or the schoolteacher whose former students we would periodically encounter around town — me always wondering, had she been as strict with them as she was with me?  About a woman who took her mothering seriously, and whose anxiety over the wellbeing of her children surfaced in angry tirades?

Or maybe this story — about the person who loved and contributed to her communities, her town and her church and her friends, a person for whom helping others and working hard was where every day began? Or the story of the nightmares that plagued her throughout her life? And this: shouldn’t we know the things that brought her peace – her long, solitary walks, the 7 am mass she attended every day?

Although my mother’s life is real and not a fiction, though the basic facts of that life root her, I tell myself that writing this obituary is much like crafting a character.  By the time I begin writing about a character, I have a strong sense of him or her, and usually a catalogue of imagined experiences behind that sense.  The task is to choose which of these will bring the reader from seeing words on paper to feeling a human presence.

There is so much in a life.  No one of these descriptions or memories stands alone.

Which stories?  This time someone needs to help me, because this time I’m not sure.

Kathy Crowley’s short stories have appeared in Ontario Review, Fish Stories, The Literary Review, New Millenium Writings and The Marlboro Review. Her stories have been short-listed for Best American Short Stories, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized. In 2006 she was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant. She recently finished her first novel, On Locust Street. When she’s not busy preparing for her future literary fame and fortune, she provides care and feeding to her three children and works as a physician at Boston Medical Center. She is a graduate of Brown University and Tufts University School of Medicine. Kathy can be found on Twitter at @Kathy_Crowley.

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