I am not quite sure how it came about, but I am a charter member of a small but unique organization, The Obituary Club. We are an unlikely group of women. Men are not discouraged from joining our group, but none have yet to actually step forward. So for now, Jenni and Janice and Joan and Denise and Lana and I make up this odd group. Our ages range from early 30s to mid 50s.
We meet regularly via email. Our mission is to make note of the passing of important, infamous, or otherwise notable people. Bonus points are given to the member who breaks the story, but I don’t think anyone actually keeps score. Sounds a little weird – maybe looks a bit morbid at first glance, but bear with me here.
Most of us have done time as “professional” obituary writers at some point in our careers. One of Jenni’s first assignments on the college newspaper, of which she later became editor, was writing the obit for the beloved dean. (Challenging since she didn’t know him, but so moving that they blew it up displayed it). Radio professional Janice has had to announce deaths on the air – breaking the news of celebrities’ demise. And Joan has the most world-wide acclaim: having written some of the most memorable obit essays about celebrities for radio’s Voice of America. My favorite: her obit for Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary fame.
I didn’t just fall into this club by accident. I come from a long line of obituary aficionados. My grandpa used to hand deliver funeral notices all over Lockhart. Is anyone old enough to remember those? Small town funeral homes used to print funeral notices on little squares of paper with black borders, and take them around and put them on peoples’ doors. In towns that only had weekly newspaper, that was the only way to be assured that you got the word out in time for folks to attend the service.
While she was not a great fan of death in general, my (great-)Aunt Robbie was a true fan of funerals and well-written obituaries. She would say, “Did you see Miss Jackson’s obit in The Paper, this afternoon? It was a good one.” Or, “Pennington’s sure did a nice job on Marjorie. She didn’t look plastic. I’d hate to look plastic like some do.”
And, of course, “You know, he was a good Methodist. So we all went back there after the service. Lois made those chicken salad sandwiches I like so much. Only white meat and real mayonaise.” And, “Someone took them a bucket of store-bought fried chicken. Umm. Umm. Didn’t even put it on a platter. I swan…”
And, as has become a family saying, my favorite expression that Aunt Robbie used to use, when I drop by her house after work -and before the paper hit the street, “Did anybody good die?” (Good in this interpretation was not actually referring to the heart and soul, of course, but newsworthy.) My mother still asks that sometimes, when calling from Houston – wondering about the goings-on in San Marcos.
When I was the features editor of The Paper, obituaries were on my beat. Sometimes, I would be asked to write the obit, but most came pre-written by the families- through the funeral home. I know a good obituary when I see it.
The information superhighway is a long way from walking door to door in Lockhart delivering the news. Random death announcements pop up during the day. We stumble across something in the online edition of New York Times or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A couple of our members even subscribe to an online Celebrity Death Watch that notifies them directly when somebody good dies. My husband helps me. If he sees a death announcement in his web-surfing, he will instant message me and say, “Did anyone post Dandy Don Meredith yet?” And sometimes, just as news pops up on the evening news, my iPhone bings with a message from one of the club members. Drat! I missed being the “first to know-first to tell.”
Every obituary we post is not necessarily one of celebrity status. When Mr. Hada died in San Marcos, I had to tell the group about him, because he was the only chicken sexer I had ever known. Janice posted one recently about oldest guy in that “We’ve been to every Super Bowl” club, who was too weak to go this year. She thinks he may have died from heartbreak for having to miss the game.
Nearly forgotten celebs whose names conjure up memories are always newsworthy. Mitch Miller and Jack Lalane, Barbara Billingsley, Sargent Shriver…
Sometimes these posts take us off on tangents. When Jane Russell died, most of our group were of a generation who didn’t think of her as a voluptuous movie star as much as the “Cross-Your-Heart bra” spokesperson who touted the Playtex 18-Hour Bra “for us full-figured gals.”
We all swapped emails about bras for about a week. Department store fittings, appropriate foundations, when they should be discarded, car wreck concerns, etc. (Maybe this is a reason we don’t have a rush of men in our numbers.) But Jane was not our first bra-related obit.
The New York Times has some of the best obits in journalism today. Their ledes draw you into the life story of the departed, whether you’ve heard of them or not. Take Selma Koch, for instance:
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 Center. She was 95 and a 34B.
Now, that is a good one.
Oh yeah, and they really do go in threes. Aunt Robbie had heard the Indian legend that people die in threes because it takes three to paddle the boat across the waters to the Happy Hunting Ground. And that does make sense. So we try to count. Or we say, “There you go – he would be the third.”
Elizabeth Edwards and Dandy Don were in the boat with Barney Miller actor Steve Landesberg. I’ll bet that was an entertaining canoe trip. I hope Elizabeth got to laugh a lot.
Listening to Shelley King’s “Welcome Home.”