Feb 17, 2020

Dying to Get into Print

By Ed Goldman

For my President’s Day column, I’d like to discuss obituary notices—those things most of us claim to not read but secretly do. Mind you, the column has nothing to do with President’s Day. I just like to seem current.

Let’s start with a not-that-grim old joke.

Mort Rackowitz celebrates his 90th birthday by booking himself a room in a swank golf-course hotel in Miami. His first day there, Mort plays 36 holes, gets a massage, takes a steam bath and goes back to his room. After a hot shower he stretches out on his bed for a pre-dinner nap and his heart comes to a complete stop.

A few days later his remaining friends and family attend his open-casket funeral. One of the friends looks at him and remarks, “You know, Mort looks pretty good.”

Another friend says, “Well, you would, too, if you’d just got back from Miami.” (Rim shot.)

Why do obituaries run two pictures of the deceased: one when they were young and one in their dotage?

I’ve been fascinated with obits since I was a kid in New York. When I was growing up, there was a slew of daily newspapers—including the Times, Journal-American, Post, Sun, Tribune—and I remember my parents poring over one or more of them to see if someone they knew had died. Since there were so many papers, my folks tended to amass them each day and then skim through them on the weekend.

This practice must have infected my DNA. To this day, if I go out of town for a few days, I never put a “stop” on the three daily newspapers I subscribe to, and ask that my cat-sitter bring them in each morning as routinely as she feeds and tickles Osborn the Magnificent, my apparently ageless tabby.

And when I sit down after my trip to go through the news and mail, my first priority is reviewing the death notices. When I’m satisfied that no one I know made the list, including me, I mix myself a martini and settle into my easy chair. To be honest, if a familiar name pops up, I may still mix that martini. But a little more solemnly.

Three aspects of obituaries I’ve never understood are:

a. The ones that run two pictures of the deceased: one when they were young and one in their dotage (if they were lucky enough to have made it that far).

These side-by-side photos seem unintentionally cruel. I recall my Grandma Molly looking at just such a display and lamenting, in her Russian-Yiddish accent, “What can happen to a person!” (It came out more like, “Vot ken HEPpen to ha POIson!”) These aren’t your usual before-and-after shots, in which the people are first seen in need of a diet, head of hair or jowl modification, and the second photo shows how terrific they look once they lose 326 pounds, get fitted with a smart toupee or suddenly have a jaw. Instead, obit pix remind you that very few of us look better at 92 than we did at 32;

b. The nicknames: I can’t understand why, when my time comes, the obit’s headline will likely refer to me as Edward (“Ed”) Goldman, as though my professional name (Ed) was dreamt up out of thin air. I simply can’t envision someone reading the notice, hitting himself in the forehead as though he could have had a V-8, and declaring, “Of course! Now I know why he was called ‘Ed!’”

On the other hand, sometimes the dearly departed had nicknames that make no sense whatsoever. I’m not talking about someone named Margaret (“Our Little Margie”) Tornquist. No, I’m referring to a notice that mourns the passing of Arthur Joseph (“Ralph”) Masterson. How did a guy with two very serviceable given names wind up with a completely unrelated third one?

c. I grieve (for real) when I read that someone died “surrounded by loved ones.” However, I’m always inclined to wonder:
1. Just how many loved ones surrounded the deceased? The newspaper could round this off or just approximate the number but either way, I think it’d tell us a little more about a life lived. For example, if the deceased was known to have an enormous family, and most of them lived in the area, wouldn’t it be useful to learn that he died surrounded by four loved ones, for example?
2. How did the loved ones surround the deceased? Did they move his bed into the middle of the room? How else could they have surrounded him? In my experience as a patient and visitor to hospitals, the usual protocol is that at least the head of the bed is against a wall. For theatre buffs, this is the difference between staging something “thrust” style (in which the audience is seated on three sides) or in-the-round, which is also called “arena” style. But unless the deceased draws a crowd of at least 40 to his bedside, this seems a bit like overstatement, wouldn’t you agree? Unless the guy just got back from Miami, of course. That always draws a crowd.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).