Here lies Johnny Yeast
Pardon me for not rising
--Inscription on an
When you do research for a novel, you never know what you might run into.
While researching background for Godspeed: a love story, which deals with the touching and surprising events streaming from a disastrous and humiliating funeral service, I learned all kinds of interesting (and sometimes humorous) things about the funeral industry and its history.
For example, a lot of people, like Johnny Yeast above, have used their obituaries or tombstones to spell out last wishes, settle some old scores, or even leave with a burst of whimsy or humor.
The obituary of one man asked that as a memorial, readers write their congressman and demand the repeal of Daylight Saving Time, which he hated. Comedian Jack Benny stipulated that after his death a single rose be delivered to his widow every day as long as she lived. A woman provided that her Pacemaker be transferred to her dog. One man insisted that after he died the mortician should arrange it so that he could stand up during the three-day wake at his home. And Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek franchise, successfully arranged to have his remains shot into space.
Many people take advantage of this one last opportunity to get in the last word, or a last laugh. There are many instances, for example, of people whose headstones read, “I told you I was sick.” Another famous epitaph reads: “What a way to lose weight!” The tombstone for a coal miner in Wales reads, “Underground now for good.” And a man named John Penny provided that his tombstone read:
Reader, if cash thou are in want of any
Dig 4 feet deep and thou wilt find a Penny
Some other whimsical tombstones:
Here lies the body/of Jonathan Blake/stepped on the gas/instead of the brake
Here lies Ezekial Aikle/Age 102/The Good Die Young
Here lies Ann Mann/who lived an old maid/but died an old Mann
The dust of/Melantha Gribbling/Swept up at last/by the Great Housekeeper
First a cough/Carried me off/Then a coffin/They carried me off in
And think about this one:
Sacred to the memory of Major James Brush, Royal Artillery,/who was killed by the accidental discharge of a pistol by his orderly/Well done, good and faithful servant
My own favorite line, which made it into my book, isn’t from a tombstone, but from the headline on an obituary in an Old West newspaper. It described the demise of a cattle rustler, who had just been hanged. “Jerked to Jesus,” the headline said.
And an actual headstone in the Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona says,
Here lies Lester Moore
Four shots from a forty-four
No Les, No More
Funerals and obituaries might seem like a strange background for a love story. But art imitates life, and the humiliating central incident behind Godspeed: a love story actually happened to a friend of mine.
He was engaged to a lovely young woman who was struck down suddenly by cancer. It fell to him to make funeral arrangements, but dazed by remorse and grief, he turned the service over to an irresponsible funeral home and then watched helplessly as they made a travesty of her last rites.
That got me to thinking about how anyone could possibly cope with a tragic situation like that. How my newspaperman hero coped with it makes up a good portion of the book. He turns to writing obituaries, hoping he can somehow atone for his guilt and failure by writing beautiful, touching tributes to others, but eventually decides that even that isn’t enough. What he does about it makes for an astonishing turn of events.
Research for the story took me down many roads, back into history, and how deaths have been treated in American newspapers over the years. They began as brief announcements in pre-Revolutionary days, gradually evolved into longer pieces, especially for prominent citizens, and now have faded back to brief announcements again, unless you are famous, or infamous, or willing to pay for an extended small-print death notice (not to be confused with obituaries).
Obituary styles have changed, too, over the years. At one time newspapers seemed preoccupied with the gruesome details of every death, sometimes describing in extended gory detail the exact clinical causes behind the deceased’s demise. Later, they backed away to the other extreme, becoming reluctant to even use the terms “death” or “dead,” preferring instead a long list of euphemisms. Newspapers of the early and mid-20th century were full of references to dearly departed who had “Crossed the Great Divide” or “Climbed that Golden Staircase” or “Went to Meet his Maker.”
Through all my research I came to one conclusion about death and dying, subjects none of us will ever escape, so we might as well face it. My conclusion is that if you want to leave a nice obituary, do it yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to write it yourself (although the funeral home would be very happy if you did), but you should at least leave a detailed written record of your life for your survivors. This is far superior to relying on a grief-stricken spouse or other distraught relative to come up with your biographical details at the last minute while they are under extreme duress.
Likewise, leave instructions for the kind of service you would like to have. Do you have a favorite Bible reading or a verse or passage from a favorite book? Do you have a favorite song or songs you want played at the service? Do you want someone in particular to give a eulogy? Spell it all out on paper and leave it for your survivors. That way, you can look down (or up!) from your final home and be assured that you left in style, just the way you wanted it, with the details all correct.
Have your heirs tuck the final obituary away in the family Bible or some other safe place, where it will become part of your family history and family tree. Here in one place are all the details about your life and family -- names, dates, events -- that will help later generations reconstruct a picture of who you were and where you fit in the family tree.
Modern technology has brought new twists to the obituary. Now you can leave a video obit, much like Art Buchwald did some years ago. In the opening frame the newly-deceased 81-year-humorist looks at the camera with a giant grin and says, “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”
And for some people, Facebook has become a lasting memorial. Facebook lets you convert an account into a permanent memorial, where friends and relatives can continue to leave warm, nostalgic messages. And there are even cases where personal sites have stayed active long after the death of the holder, where friends can continue to post sentimental comments.
If all this is too grisly to contemplate right now, keep in mind that 100 years from now everybody who ever knew you will be dead, too, so a nice obituary at least will tell others in that far-off time that you were here and meant something to somebody. You can’t live forever, but the next best thing is an obituary, which is going to be around for a long time.
And if you leave a zinger on your tombstone, they’ll know that you had a sense of humor, too. Like this guy:
Here lies an atheist
All dressed up and no place to go
Don't forget to stop back by on Friday for Book Review of Godspeed by Dan Chabot.