It must be a kind of trend, but today I saw another news article about an angry obituary. I wrote several years ago about an amazingly blunt, soul-venting obituary that one of her eight children wrote about their mother, and I never thought I’d see another one like it. But I was wrong.
This latest unforgiving obituary is also written about a mother, from the perspective of her children. The obit notes that the woman got married in 1957, had two children named Gina and Jay, and then in 1962 “became pregnant by her husband’s brother,” moved to California, and “abandoned her children.” The obit says that, after her death, the woman “will now face judgement” and concludes: “She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”
That’s a pretty harsh thing to say about even a cruel stranger, much less your own mother. Who knows, perhaps she deserved it — but it would be nice to think that the children could rise above their anger and bitterness, after 55 years, and show some of the grace and decency that they obviously think their mother lacked.
Here’s the latest work of the Webner family obit writer: Mom’s obituary, which was published today in the Columbus Dispatch and in the Akron Beacon Journal, Mom’s old hometown newspaper. Mom hasn’t lived in Akron for 40 years, but we know she still has good friends there who would want to know about her passing.
The on-line versions of the obits appear on legacy.com, which must be a kind of national clearinghouse for obituaries. The website versions of Mom’s obit also include links to an on-line “guest book” where people can give their condolences and share their memories, and directions to the funeral home where we will be having calling hours later this week.
The website also offers a link to ancestry.com and information about how many Webners were recorded in the 1920 census and fought on the Union side in the Civil War. Other links provide information on funeral etiquette, such as helpful advice that you shouldn’t wear flip flops or glittery clothing to a memorial service. It all shows how news websites are far more flexible — and provide far more advertising opportunities — than print newspapers. People die, but the wheels of internet commerce roll ever onward.
Our family would like to thank everyone who has shared words of encouragement and support and kind thoughts about Mom. They are all much appreciated.
More than 30 years ago, I worked for the Toledo Blade. Although I technically was assigned to the City Desk, my designated “beat” was writing obituaries. Day after day, I took calls from funeral homes, interviewed grieving survivors to get facts about the departed, and then wrote the obituary as a news story. During my six months at the Blade, I wrote hundreds of them. It was not an uplifting job.
That long-ago job, though, has ever since defined my role when there is a death in our family. My task is set — and it is a good thing. Everyone wants to be useful and helpful when death comes calling, and writing the obituary (which most newspapers now treat not as a news story, but as a paid death notice) is something I know how to do. You wouldn’t want me figuring out flower arrangements, but the obit I can handle.
I also remember an experience that occurred years ago, when my grandmother died. The minister who presided over her service kept calling her by the wrong name — which as you can imagine was not well-received by the members of our family. Ever since, I’ve vowed that when members of our family who have died are formally remembered, whether in print or in remarks, someone who actually knew them will help to do the writing or the talking.
When I write an obit for a family member, I always think about what made the person unique, and try to make sure that gets included along with the standard facts about age, education, and survivors. If I do my job right, when I’m finished I always feel a bit closer and more connected to the loved one who has gone beyond. That’s a good thing, too.
My mother always taught us that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. That notion should apply, especially, to obituaries.
So what does it tell you when an obituary written about a woman by one of her 8 children pointedly says that she died “alone,” that she spent her lifetime “torturing” them “in every way possible,” and that her children “celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the afterlife reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children”? The obituary, of a woman named Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick, appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal and is an amazing document. Among other things, it says: “Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.”
There’s obviously a back story here, and the Reno paper apparently pulled the obituary after it was first published and is doing an investigation. In the meantime, the original obit has gone viral, and other news outlets are reporting on the history of this woman and her children — which apparently includes foster homes, a case decided by the Nevada Supreme Court, and legislation that allows children to terminate parental rights.
I’m sure there is a lot more to this story of apparent human misery. One line in the obituary reads: “Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.” I find myself wondering what terrible things must have happened to cause a child to write such words about her own mother.
If you’ve been on planet Earth for a while, you’ve inevitably had to deal with death — and you have come to realize that it affects people differently, and they deal with it differently. There is no right or wrong way.
My first job out of college was writing obituaries for the Toledo Blade. In those days, the Blade treated obituaries as standard news stories, which meant the facts of the individual’s life and death, the names of survivors, and so forth had to be confirmed with a member of the decedent’s family. It was not exactly a job well-suited to a callow, arrogant youth. Some of the grieving family members I called to get the necessary information were so distraught and caught up in the rawness of their emotion they could barely speak, and I could feel the intensity of their pain through the phone line. Others were ready for my call and very pleasant and business-like as they rattled off the names of survivors and the dates and times of calling hours.
That job taught me that there is no one way to respond to the loss of a friend or loved one. (Being in heavily ethnic Toledo, where names like Czyzewski and Szilagyi were not uncommon, it also taught me the importance of double-checking spellings and careful proofreading. People who open their newspaper and see that the name of a decedent or survivor is misspelled can get very angry, indeed.)
Some people don’t want to dwell on their pain; they prefer to move on and try not to think about it. Others want to be by themselves, to wrestle with their mix of feelings and memories without having to put on a brave face for others. I prefer to be with others who are dealing with the same loss. I think there is a reason why, in many different cultures that developed at points across the globe, the deeply rooted tradition is for the community to come together to remember those who have gone on. For me, it’s better to share stories and laughs and experiences with like-minded people than to thrash about alone, obsessing about questions of cosmic unfairness that can never be satisfactorily answered.
The release of Adventureland on video caused bloggers at Amazon.com to talk about their worst job ever. For me, it’s no contest — my worst job was writing obituaries for the Toledo Blade for six months in 1980-81. I’d blog about it, but the memories are still too fresh and painful to relive right now.