NEWSPAPER READERS ARE A VARIED LOT. Some need a comics fix every day. Others faithfully peruse the op-ed page or flip to Ann Landers. But I have to read the obituaries. Those little thumbnail bios can make me sniffle or giggle or roll my eyes. The front page may cover high drama—plane crashes, escaped convicts, celebrity scandals—but the obits truly validate the journalistic adage that every person has a story.
Unlike Hispanics, who honor death and the dead, Anglos tend to shy away from the subject—except in obituaries and memorials. Never slaves to convention, Texans in particular manage to infuse their obituaries with humor, bravado, braggadocio, and a distinctively regional slant. (For example, few Texans die with their boots on these days, but by the time they’re buried, their obits confirm that many are once again properly shod.) Frequently a classified-ad worker or a funeral home employee helps assemble the notice, using a fill-in-the-blanks bio sheet. “We try to help people get their thoughts down on paper,” says David Sparkman, of Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home in Dallas. “These days, more and more families are writing their own.”
Occasionally, an obituary is dull—just a tedious recitation of honors. But in general, obits penned by survivors and friends are lively reminiscences that briefly bring the loved one back to life. Variations in the standard lingo can give the reader pause; one convention, for example, is “preceded in death by his parents,” which a San Benito notice shortened to “preceded by his parents” (aren’t we all?). Sometimes the deceased have pre-written their own. One Jan Austin, who died in Houston in August, told her family, “I bid you all farewell. Do not weep.” Here’s a brief peek into the world of Texas obituaries, gleaned from two decades of dedicated readership.
The first item of note—after the picture, if there is one—is the name of the deceased. Members of older generations often boast elegant appellations like Plato Erasmus Crayton, Alfred Tennyson Moses, and Queen Esther Lewis. And it’s hard not to enjoy the irony of the last names Deadmon and Lazarus. One of my all-time favorite names belonged to an Austin woman: Vernal Equinox Richardson-Nicholson, who was indeed born on March 21—in the year 1898, which put her way ahead of the modern hyphenating trend. Another decedent preferred that her compound last name be asterisked instead of hyphenated, and another person inserted, between his two last names, a plus sign enclosed by parentheses. The same symbol—(+)—appeared in his sisters’ names as well (affectation? pseudonym?). One young Austin man was intriguingly referred to as Randy (Danny) Lee East (Clark), while a Houston woman was identified only as Mrs. Zuber. In a striking coincidence, two Austin women named Aurora Velasquez died on the same day. And the plethora of nicknames is astonishing: C-Boy, Stepchild, Baby Boo, Pooh, Ho Ho, Big Tootie, and Chipper, to name just a few. The reader can speculate on the origin of some—say, Picky and Tux—but Thuddy and Uppi? Go figure.
In obituaries people don’t merely die. They “expire” or “pass away” or “depart this life” or “enter into eternal rest.” Others “slip into the light” or “finish the last chapter” or move “quietly from this illusion into the Great Mystery.” Some succumb passively, having been “called home” or “promoted to glory” or “swept on angels’ wings.” One poignant line in a pregnant woman’s obituary lamented that “two limbs fell from our family tree.” One “too brief life cut a shining arc across the sky that left us all breathless.” And with eloquent simplicity, the obit for a young Austin attorney stated, “Sunrise: November 22, 1959. Sunset: September 26, 1996.”
In the past newspapers declined to print the cause of death, not so much from a sense of tact as from a fear of lawsuits, because families might object to public knowledge of a condition such as alcoholism. And since the eighties, AIDS has been a common assumption when a man under the age of forty dies and no accident or illness is mentioned. But increasingly, the cause of death is specified or can be easily deduced from the inevitable “in lieu of flowers” line suggesting charitable donations (Houston’s M. D. Anderson hospital, say, indicates cancer). One amusing and no doubt accurate euphemism listed the reason as “the complications of life.” Of course, if the age of the deceased is seventy-plus, natural causes—a.k.a. old age—is often the culprit. (Still, age is a state of mind, as the saying goes. An obit for one longtime Austin resident lamented her “untimely death” … at 99.)
With younger people, and especially children, the cause is more likely to be spelled out. Residents of Houston in particular seem willing to impart details. One teenager there died “after four months of courageously fighting T-cell leukemia” and another “after a freak electrical drowning accident.” A memorial for another Houston teen straightforwardly mentioned her suicide and urged, “Please, if you know of anyone who talks about hurting themselves, call and tell someone!” The obit for a beautiful young Houston woman sought “information that will allow HPD to put handcuffs on Dawn’s cowardly, brutal murderer” and offered a $10,000 reward. Another, for a young Hispanic mother, noted that “Elvira was missing for almost three years before her body was found.” And little Alexander Michael Brown, only five years old, was lost when “a house fire ripped through our lives, taking away what we held most dear.”
The second paragraph of the obit generally enumerates survivors: spouse, parents, children, and grandchildren. But the notice for an Austin woman listed, after her own five kids, “a number of ‘virtual children’” (surrogate sons or daughters? cyberpals?). Often a spouse clings to the belief in a celestial reunion; a Central Texas wife’s obit noted that she “watches over and waits for her soulmate.” A Houston widow rhapsodized that “no one will ever love in the same way after us” (and, in the picture of her late husband, a long-nailed hand possessively clutches his shoulder). Of course, couples don’t have to be heterosexual; a gay survivor can be variously described as a “lover,” “life mate,” “longtime companion,” “best friend,” and—in one Austin case—“the finest husband a man could ever hope to find.” Sometimes the family envisions the recently deceased’s reunion with other family members—a Houston man’s obit announced that he “entered into Heaven escorted by both parents hand in hand.” For sheer number of generations produced in a lifetime, the winner might be a Borger woman who left 6 children, 34 grandchildren, 55 great-grandchildren, 7 great-great-grandchildren, and 6 great-great-great-grandchildren. (She was 85, so each generation started reproducing at an average age of 17.)
Family favoritism often comes through loud and clear. One man left several daughters, one of whom was singled out as “dedicated, devoted, and caring” (wonder who wrote that obit?), and a 63-year-old was “survived by a granddaughter, ‘her darling’”—mentioned by name—and then, perfunctorily, “eight other grandchildren.” But the bereaved don’t have to be human. Often “left behind,” to use the vernacular, are cats and dogs. A Houston man’s five relatives were outnumbered by his “beloved pets, Reginal, Romeo, Gypsy, Precious, Genevive, Pandora, Sambo, and Max.” Another obit listed the recently deceased’s “beloved TR-6” (a British sports car), yet another his African violets.
The real substance of any obituary, however, is the biographical information. This is often the best part, if occasionally a less than factual one (see “Funny Papers,” October 1996). The highlights that survivors choose to immortalize can vary from impressive to comical. An Austin man was remembered for being “instrumental in helping to restore phone service to Lampasas after the great flood of 1957”; another “sold the first Singer [sewing machine] in Milam County”; and one was labeled, in boldface type, “A Man to Remember” for accomplishments that included teaching “the world’s first graduate course in plastics technology.” One Austin nonagenarian had been “a midwife and dresser of the deceased” (bet she could tell some tales), while an Elgin man liked to “play 42 and talk Swedish.” The obit of one Clyde C. Williams, dead at 83, noted that he was “saved from the electric chair” and went from “murderer’s row to pulpit” (give me details!). Some juxtapositions are jarring, such as a man identified as a “member of the Church of Christ & Sheet Metal Local #54.”
Military minutiae are especially commonplace. In Central Texas one veteran had won three Purple Hearts; another had enlisted at age fourteen; and a retired colonel had once been in charge of condensing information for General Douglas MacArthur, who “would only read one page of reports.” A Houston veteran “survived after his ship sank by holding on to an oil drum for two days.” Many families proudly announce the decedent’s ties to this or that pioneer family, but sometimes the departed are downright royal: a San Antonio woman was revealed to be an Osage princess, and an Austin cancer victim was declared “sixth in line from King Arthur” (did he own a round table?). Many loved ones are associated with food. “Life will never be the same,” lamented an Austin family in their mother’s memorial, without “that good dressing.” A family catchphrase or the decedent’s favorite expression often closes the obit: “Peace, Dad”; “Ride on, Bro”; “I love you more than you love me, Pop-Pop.”
The character of the deceased and his family always asserts itself. A 67-year-old Lakeway man died during his daily run. “Though surprised and saddened,” his obit said, “the family admits it was the way he would have wanted it, as jogging was his favorite activity.” A Central Texas octogenarian “left this world while comfortably reclining in his beloved chair.” A Luling rancher appreciated “good well water.” The obituary for an elderly bookkeeper noted that “the casual way in which her nieces approached their bank statements was a source of consternation to her.” A Houston man was recalled as a “beloved rascal and ne’er-do-well.” One Austin man is a contender for the most forceful personality award: His entry began “Martin S. Cramer was brought into this world on October 28, 1941, without his knowledge and consent. He died against his will on July 21, 1996.” An Austin restaurateur’s obit revealed that the last words written in his journal were “Somebody call a cab.” But possibly my favorite obituary of all time belonged to Helen Francis Rutherford Shaw of San Antonio, who, among other accomplishments, “was known for making a particularly wicked jalapeño sweet pickle,” “delighted in getting the generals’ wives to make silly fruit hats and enjoy it,” and “never panicked, even when the dog munched most of the ham.”
Plentiful scriptural references are a given, but obits may offer nuggets from other literary sources, from William Shakespeare to Thornton Wilder. Snippets of songs are common, too—notably (and somewhat curiously) “More Today Than Yesterday,” a 1969 hit by the short-lived pop group Spiral Starecase. Florid doggerel appears often; especially popular is “God looked around his garden and found an empty space / He then looked down upon this earth and saw your tired face.” But the true gems are original verses penned by the bereaved, such as “I reached for the phone to call and say hi, then I remembered you’re up in the sky.” A poem for a child is doubly painful: “My little boy, I think of you often / Such a short life, such a small coffin.” One family, however, obviously recognized its poetic limitations and settled for a stanza that says it all: “Roses are red / Violets are blue / We wish you were here / ’Cause we miss you.”