Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

I would invariably learn something from the obituary that I hadn’t known before, even when I knew—or thought I knew—the person well. One time I learned from an obituary that a dear friend I called Skip for years was given the name Arlen at birth.

What other secrets had “Arlen” kept from me? I wondered. I have had my doubts about him ever since.

Anyway, I still read obituaries, not just those of people I once knew, but much more often these days those of people I didn’t know. Older people, I’m guessing, read obituaries more than younger people, though I have no data to back this up. I think older people spend more time thinking about what their own lives have amounted to. Or else, older people are just nosy.

Personally, I think New York Times obituaries are the best, though I may be biased because those are the ones I read every day. The Times has an entire staff, separate from its newsroom and editorial staffs, devoted to writing obituaries. And they’re good at it.

In a recent interview, a Times obituary writer explained that they don’t use euphemisms for death. For example, no one “passes away” in the Times. And no one “is called home to be with her Lord and Savior.” In the Times people just die. And when they die, they are never “surrounded by family.” Unless someone died alone and forgotten in a ditch by the side of the road, they argue, you can imagine that someone was present. I must say, I like this approach.

Obituary writers employed by newspapers often have a pretty good sense of humor, which in my experience is also true of funeral directors, a subject for another column. An obituary writer for the Washington Post recently joked that “God is my assignment editor.” He also noted that the “dead beat”—his term for obituary writing—is almost always more interesting than covering the latest city council meeting.

In a recent interview with NBC News, Rudy Giuliani said, with resignation, that the words “he lied for Trump” might be in the first paragraph of his obituary. But then he added, “If it is, so what do I care? I’ll be dead.”

The thing is, we do care. Most of us won’t be remembered for long, but for the months and maybe years our memories linger we want other people to think good thoughts about us. We want to be remembered for the good things we did or the positive impact our lives had. We want to be missed.

You won’t find many mean or unflattering obituaries, so when one turns up, it often makes the news. Here’s the first paragraph from one of my favorites: “Leslie Ray ‘Popeye’ Charping was born in Galveston on November 20, 1942, and passed away January 30, 2017, which was 29 years longer than expected and much longer than he deserved.” Mr. Charping’s family obviously wasn’t sorry to see him go.

I lived for several years in a community where the obituaries in the local newspaper were long—unnecessarily long, it seemed to me. Often they covered several columns, as though there was a competition for importance even in death. Every academic degree, professional organization and board membership was listed.

It’s not important to me that anyone remembers the brief time I served on the board of a non-profit back in the 1990s. I’m proud of my work, but it’s not necessary to brag about it in my obituary.

Then what should people say about us when we die?

When my father in law died a few years ago, I looked forward to reading in his obituary all the details about his life and his many contributions to the community where he lived. Instead, his children summarized an entire life in four words: “servant of Jesus Christ.”

It was surprisingly short, I thought, as though money wasn’t available for anything more, but I knew that wasn’t the case. As his children put it, “That’s all that really needs to be said about any of us.” And they were right.

I hope my children make a similar choice.

Photo: Birch Willey died earlier this month at age 88. He was a fine man who taught me about life and fishing in the Everglades. I will miss him.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

7 Responses to Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

  1. Sandra Steffen February 21, 2019 at 8:32 am #

    Doug, check out The Economist if you want to read some great obits!!! They are on the very last page of the magazine. Birch WILL be missed!!!!!

  2. Joyce February 21, 2019 at 10:59 am #


  3. Charles Scouten February 21, 2019 at 3:17 pm #

    Wonder if I’ll be remembered as a curious chipmunk – always looking for a new seed to chew on, and never really satisfied with status quo?

    • Presby06! February 21, 2019 at 8:31 pm #

      Thank you for giving me the words, Charles! Never satisfied with the status quo is obviously the right epitaph for you.

  4. Marion Robbins February 21, 2019 at 11:33 pm #

    I guess I’ve been known to check the obit page now and then, but by the time the newspaper goes into the recycle bin, I’ve probably forgotten what I’ve just read except for one obit I can’t seem to forget. Perhaps you remember it too. It was the obituary of a father written by his daughter and submitted to the Des Moines Register on Memorial Day in 2001. The Chicago Tribune usually prints it every year on Memorial Day. So, Google the Chicago Tribune obit entitled “Hoist One for Red.” It’s a keeper!

  5. Sally McClintock Snyder February 26, 2019 at 11:45 pm #

    Good one Doug!