Obit Options Blog
Donna Leah Alvis
A disturbing obituary was published this week, unleashing a torrent of venom from a brother and sister bent on having the last word about their mother. They say their mother became pregnant by her brother-in-law (their uncle) and abandoned them. The obit stated that the mother would not be missed and would now face judgment for her actions.
I can’t judge the children for the harsh feelings they bore their mother because I haven’t been in their shoes, but an obituary is not an arena for airing a deceased person’s dirty laundry, nor a means of lashing out at the dead for real or perceived wrongs. Many obits overly glorify the deceased with glowing attributes that are magnified by the grieving family, but this is better than speaking ill of a person who can’t defend his or her self.
The obit was later deleted from the newspaper website, but should not have been published to begin with. The damage had been done. No obit is better than one written in the spirit of vengeance.
Even before I became a newspaper obituary clerk, I perused rolls of microfilm from the local library. This seems dull to a lot of people, but as a history enthusiast and a crime fiction writer, I could sit there for hours, or at least until I got a headache from scanning pages.
One day I discovered a book entitled Tennessee Obituaries, authored by Jill L. Garrett. What I read were no holds barred obituaries from the nineteenth century. These must have been written as news items, unlike today, when obituaries are written or approved by family members, and sent to newspapers from a funeral home.
Here are some examples of newspaper coverage of death in the nineteenth century.
"Fillinger. Baptized To Death. Last summer, William Fillinger and his wife, who live 3 miles from Perry, Michigan, attended a series of revivals and became mad in a mild way. With them lived Fillinger’s mother, who has long been physically frail. It worried Fillinger and his wife that the older woman was unbaptized, and Saturday they decided that the necessary religious rite should be performed; although the poor woman was confined to her bed, unable to even rise. Taking water to her room they began the ceremony by dashing water in her face, and continued it, until from shock and exhaustion their victim died. Fillinger and his wife were arrested and taken to jail at Corunna." (Maury Democrat, 23 Oct. 1890.)
"Fetz, Mrs. Mary, funeral to held today; age 83; died while sitting in a chair at breakfast Sunday; died of old age and exhaustion; has daughter Mrs. Theresa Warren. " (Nashville Republican Banner, 1871)
"Lacwertz, Fred, was fatally shot by W. F. Keltner at Mrs. Holden’s boarding house near the depot in Columbia; made remarks about Mrs. Keltner; died Sunday; buried Rose Hill; son of Mack Lacwertz of Ottenheim near Crab Orchard, Ky " (Maury Democrat, 12 Sept. 1895)
"Mason, Samuel, colored, the oldest man in Tennessee, died last week in Nashville, was 106 years old at Christmas; purchased by the city of Nashville in 1827 from John Y. Mason of Southhampton County, Va., for $900; served Nashville for 73 years and was receiving a pension of $10 a month; plumber and grader of streets. " (Hohenwald Chronicle, 5 Jan. 1900)
"Capt. W.H. , old and successful shipper, died at Norwalk, Conn., a few days ago. In 1838 when his ship passed the New York , an anchor caught on his great-coat and carried him with it into 35 feet of water. On touching bottom, he unbuttoned coat and floated to the surface. " (Columbia Herald and Mail, 21 Dec. 1877)
"Young, Abe, of Rally Hill in Maury County, was found dead in Duck River on May 2 at Hardison’s Mill. He was to be a witness for the grand jury against a number of parties, and he was killed to keep him from testifying at the next term of court." (Maury Democrat, 9 May, 1889.)
Twenty-first century obituaries look a little different, don’t they?