Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Read it and weep.

Seriously. Have a box of Kleenex handy before you start reading Healer who never fell back laid to rest, a Jim Sheeler masterpiece that ran in the Rocky Mountain News on Dec. 30, 2006.

It's about a Marine's bond with the Navy corpsman, who saved his life.

Little touches got to me.

About the Marine sergeant, Jim wrote: The sergeant's father wheeled him into a waiting room, where the Marine asked to sit in the corner, out of the way. Soon, the room was filled with crisp Navy uniforms - admirals, chiefs and hospital corpsmen, many of them sporting dress coats jingling with medals.

Then, down the stairs, the sergeant saw the people who wore no uniforms, the ones who wore only grief.

Jim wrote this about the Navy corpsman: Using his medical equipment as a universal translator - and ice-breaker - he treated Iraqis as well as his own men, forging trust in a place where the word often has no definition. If he saw an Iraqi child with a cut or scrape, he would paste the child with antibacterial cream and bandages and attempt to win his part of the war with Band-Aids.

Wearing grief. Winning a war with Band-Aids. Jim sure has a way with words. And with emotions. You have to read the entire piece to get the full effect.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

"Pretty amazing" obit for family princess

Jim Sheeler passed along this story, which he called "pretty amazing." I'm sure you'll agree with his assessment.

It's an obituary Erin Sullivan wrote for Cynthia Sargent, homecoming queen and family princess, for the Jan. 22, 2007, edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

Here's the essence of Erin's story about Cynthia:
She never did anything she didn't want to do - and she definitely didn't want to die. People usually did what she wished, without complaint, because they loved her. After 42 years of getting her way, her body was the first to refuse.

For me, coming from a newspaper where the fact that the person is dead is supposed to be mentioned in the first two sentences, I love how Erin made it clear in the lead that Cindy was dead without having to resort to the traditional death sentence.

Her stepfather leaned over her deathbed and said he was going to the store.

The princess' last request? Three ripe, organic, unblemished bananas.

She'd always been particular.
She ordered food like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, with everything just so and on the side.

Cindy, who preferred to be called Cynthia, because it was more elegant, also wanted to look like the slim, trim homecoming queen that she had been as a teenager.

Erin writes that Cindy's mom remembers a time when the chemotherapy burned Cindy's palms like she had pressed them down on a hot skillet. She and Cindy were going to Wal-Mart to get bandages. But Cindy still took hours getting ready - wig, scarf, outfit, polished toenails, pretty sandals, makeup.

"Cindy," her mom said, exasperated, "what does it matter?"

"But Mom," Cindy said. "I might see someone I know."

You have got to read the entire obit. It's awesome.

Written by the Deceased

Charles L. Fontenay, a science fiction writer and former editor for The Tennessean, died on Jan. 27. Cause of death was not released. He was 89.

Those were the bare facts of Fontenay's obit. But there was oh so much more.

During his 40-plus years at The Tennessean, Fontenay worked as a general assignment reporter, science reporter, legislative and political writer, city editor and rewrite editor. In his spare time, he prepared advance obituaries on prominent people -- including his own.

"Charles L. Fontenay, most of whose half century-plus as a newspaperman was spent with The Tennessean, surprised himself and delighted many of his colleagues by dying yesterday."

Although the self-penned piece was a bit long -- particularly for a professional editor -- I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Charles' work, hobbies and life experiences. His article also reminded me to look beyond the bare facts of a person's life when I'm researching/writing obits, and really delve into the details. For it is there that the best stories are found.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

To Err Is Human, To Forgive Divine

Everyone makes mistakes, yet when you make an error in an obituary -- the final story to document someone's life and achievements -- it is important to immediately fix the problem.

Michelle Martin made such a mistake in the last issue of the Catholic New World. She ran the wrong photo on Father John M. Murphy's obit; the picture actually showed Father Cliff Bergin, who is still among the living. Although the story was later corrected in print, Martin also wrote an entire column of apology to everyone involved.

"My apologies to Father Cliff Bergin, the priest (living, I am happy to say) whose picture ran, and to Father Murphy's family. I'd apologize to Father Murphy, too, but I suspect he isn't so interested in worldly concerns anymore -- and if he was, that his sense of humor would kick in. I hope he would forgive me -- as I hope those who love him, as well as Father Bergin and his family have," Martin wrote.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Gussie and the knitting factory

The better portion of the obituary I wrote for Gussie Jones, that was published in The Plain Dealer on Jan. 13, 2007, focused on her late-in-life career as a volunteer, helping fellow seniors at a senior center.

Gussie was in her 70s, when she started volunteering at an adult day care center in the late 1980s. She was honored with an award for her dedication when she was approaching 90. What a great person she must have been!

But the following lines I wrote about a job Gussie held earlier in life ended up giving me the warm fuzzies:

In the 1940s, when her children were young and her husband, a city employee, became too ill to work, Gussie took a job at the H.E. Frisch Knitting Mills, which later became part of the Bobbie Brooks Co.

Her boss "was a German man," said Jones' daughter Shirley Parker-McCoy. "His machines were brought over from the old country. They made a special kind of knit. She worked nights. She would walk around the machines so they didn't get a hole in the knitting."

I like to include little tidbits of history - in this case local history - in obits. Some readers get nostalgic over such things. Others stroke their chins and say, "Hmm. I've never heard of that."

This time, I heard from a reader whose family owned the knitting mill. He wrote: I have a DVD showing my father and Gussie's German boss and the machinery she was operating. It may be interesting to her family. How can I contact them?

Naturally, I don't give out phone numbers, mailing or e-mail addresses for the relatives of the people I write about. I usually forward e-mails, when possible, or call the family to give them the option of contacting the person. Or I simply advise the interested party to check the phone book - on paper or online - or contact the funeral home. Funeral directors should be able to forward condolences and such to the family.

In Gussie's case, I called her daughter in Georgia to relay the e-mailer's message. The end result: The e-mailer sent Gussie's kids the video to show them the machine from the old country that she'd always told them about.

I love when that happens.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Funeral TV, The Funeral Channel, RIP TV

I missed a lot of the week or so of live television coverage of funerary events for the late former President Gerald Ford and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.

Because of Ford's position as the former leader of the free world, CSPAN, PBS and the cable news networks repeated most of the pomp and circumstance of late prez's family-and-friends services in California, motorcade to the Capitol, ceremonies at the Capitol, his lying in state, public services at the Washington Cathedral and the grand finale in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Portions of the eulogizing of Ford by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert and of Brown by now-reclusive pop star Michael Jackson were re-broadcast on talk and entertainment shows, but not in their entirety.

I was unable to stay home from work to watch live coverage of this death-related hoopla. And I felt somehow deprived for having missed any of it - particularly the musical tributes to Brown.

I also wanted to compare their sendoffs with those of other presidents and entertainment icons. Nostalgia swept over me. Could I please see repeats of the funerals of Presidents Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy and Roosevelt? How about some historic reports on pre-TV presidential funerals, like Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson? How did James Brown's tributes compare with the recently deceased R&B star Gerald Levert or country legend Johnny Cash or just-plain-legendary Frank Sinatra?

If only my cable company offered a cable channel dedicated to funerals! Funeral TV! The Funeral Channel! Insomniacs flipping through the remote control could find videotaped or phone-cam images from funerals of the dearly - or notoriously - departed rich and famous to watch and/or fall asleep to.

I mentioned this to a few friends, who thought the notion of all funerals, all day on one channel strange and amusing. That's how I felt when I first learned about The Weather Channel or CSPAN2's BookTV. And yet I have become a fan of both.

Before composing this blog item, I was reminded of these paraphrased words of the late great comedian/philosopher/songwriter/TV-host Steve Allen: If an idea is good, more than likely you are not the only one who has thought of it.

So I googled "Funeral Channel" and "Funeral TV." Yep. I got lots of hits.

In a 1997 salon.com piece titled "Why funerals play so well on TV," author Steven D. Stark wrote:

Mourning no longer becomes Electra, but in a very odd way, it does become television -- so much so that Michael Kinsley (journalist who was Pat Buchanan's liberal adversary on CNN's "Crossfire") several years ago (apparently in the early 1990s or 1980s) jokingly suggested that cable television would one day feature a new network called the Funeral Channel.

I found a 1999 "Insight on the News" piece in which writer Jennifer G. Hickey talked about a Clown Funeral. She wrote:

It was a big day for the big top in Hugo, Okla., particularly for Doris Richard Miller, otherwise known as Mr. Circus, who died in September but had been put on ice by the Carson & Barnes five-ring circus until the show season concluded. While big red noses and cymbal-playing monkeys were not called for, Mr. Circus had left careful instructions for his last performance, -- including being laid out in a red and gold casket, to be carried by a horse-drawn hearse followed by marching musicians playing circus music to enliven his journey to the hereafter.

This "best funeral ever" even included in the procession one of Miller's 36 elephants, missing only live coverage by the cable-TV networks. If only there were a 24-hour funeral channel.

"Think how wonderfully ludicrous that would be. I don't think it is viable, but it is the logical extension" of the current coverage, suggests Jane Hall, associate professor of communication at American University in Washington. While the notion of an all-funeral channel (let's call it RIP-TV) may elicit a dismissive giggle from enthusiasts of black humor, the recent trend of airing everything from tragic events to the funerals that follow them suggests that there may be a Harold and Maude market.

The Blue Aardvark, a prolific message-board contributor penned this comment on Andy Polley's Happy Fun Time message board:
This reminds me that what this world really needs is The Funeral Channel. There always a good one going on somewhere. Slack time could be filled with historic packages.

My sentiments exactly.

Practical reasons for a Grim Channel are given in "What's Playing On The Funeral Channel?" from Nov. 1998. (I'm not certain where it first appeared.):

Retired sociology professor Robert Fulton, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, says people shouldn't be surprised to see a "funeral channel" added to cable network offerings in the near future. Televised funeral services for celebrities and public figures have provided big ratings for CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel, with some networks doubling viewership.

"Watching televised funerals provides a chance for people to express emotion, or at least see others expressing [it]," Fulton explains. "People afraid of death can also keep it at a distance." For example, the high-profile deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, politicians Barry Goldwater and Sonny Bono, and country-and-western singer Tammy Wynette had networks scrambling to broadcast funerals. "It's packaged death--a way of keeping death under control. We can see the grief on the faces of family and friends, but we are spared that."

My Internet search also discovered references to funeral homes offering Webcasts of funerals for mourners unable to attend; a movie titled "Funeral Channel," a dark comedy which apparently was made in 1999 but never released; and support for a funeral channel in the mode of the History Channel or Biography from Rychard E. Withers, who posts with WNN, an online discussion group for fans of ABC's "World News Now."

In a 2003 entry, Withers wrote:
And I've been saying for years that this would be a cable channel that would
work . . steady supply of material and lots of big names . . . "The Funeral Channel . . . now you'll know the bastard's dead."