People have come up with all kinds of ways to attain their 15 minutes of fame. But many who have a spotlight on them these days don’t even know it. They’re the ones whose death notices, written by themselves or family members, are “going viral.”
According to the online Urban Dictionary, “… a link goes viral because most of the people who get it forward it to their Friends list or post it in their online status. Strong political content, celebrity news, news of disasters, America's funniest home videos and crude sexual humor are popular topics to go viral.”
Add to the relatively new phenomenon: viral obits.
As obituaries have morphed into something more like short stories over the past few years, the liveliest of them are frequently spotted, even in small type, on newspapers’ pages of death notices. Grab that link on the paper’s website, email it to a couple of friends and another 15 minutes of fame is off and running.
As a student and writer of obituaries, I receive many of these obits; sometimes the same one comes to my inbox more than two dozen times. And they keep coming – months, even years after the person’s death. Run-of-the-mill readers seem to find delight and dread and insight as they read about the passing of strangers.
Some of the stories prove eye-catching for their humor; take William Freddie McCullough’s obit, for example, in the Savannah Morning News this month. Its intro resembles a novel’s: “Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him…He attracted more women than a shoe sale at Macy’s.” It includes funny details: “He hated vegetables and hypocrites.” – and some of his accomplishments: “growing fruit trees, grilling chicken and ribs, popping wheelies on his Harley…hitting Coke bottles at 30 yards with his .45…”
The obit concluded that Freddie went to “that pool party in the sky” when he “rushed into a burning orphanage to save a group of adorable children. Or maybe not. We all know how he liked to tell stories.”
A reader favorite that made its way around the World Wide Web and the world last spring was the story of Harry Stamps. In the Sun-Herald (Miss.) obit, lovingly written by his attorney daughter, Amanda Lewis, Harry sprang to life: “He taught (his daughters) to fish, to select a specialty hammer, to love nature. … He took great pride in stocking their tool boxes.” Food and fashion were big for Harry, too: “He had a lifelong love affair with deviled eggs, Lane cakes, boiled peanuts, Vienna sausages on saltines, his homemade canned fig preserves, pork chops … buttermilk served in martini glasses garnished with cornbread. … His signature everyday look was…a plain pocketed T-shirt designed by the fashion house Fruit of the Loom, his black-label, elastic-waist shorts … and a pair of old-school Wallabees.”
The obit was read by New York Times senior writer and book critic Dwight Garner who tweeted it to his many well-read followers and the literary elite; Harry Stamps was off and running. Hillary Clinton, a "smart woman" in Stamps's book ("One of his regrets was not seeing his girl, Hillary Clinton, elected President ..."), was so taken by the obituary, she actually wrote a letter to Amanda applauding the tribute to her dad. The letter now lives in a safe-deposit box.
Some obits have been so funny that they don’t ring true. And they’re not.
Antonia W. “Toni” Larroux’s grown children – her son a minister! – began her obit nicely enough – “Waffle House lost a loyal customer on April 30. …” but then quickly attributed her demise to “a battle with multiple illnesses: lupus, rickets, scurvy, kidney disease and feline leukemia.” After a series of quips and one-upmanship over who was the favorite child, the notice ended on a sweeter note: “… the woman who loved life and taught her children to ‘laugh at the days to come’ is now safely in the arms of Jesus and dancing at the wedding feast of the lamb.”
Another mother, gloriously celebrated in her Milwaukee Journal death notice, was Mary A. “Pink” Mullaney. And why wouldn’t this go viral? “If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop,” her children wrote. “We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink. … Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, childproof cabinets, tie toilet flappers or hang Christmas ornaments.” The 85-year-old mother of six and grandmother of 17 was known to let the dogs sleep in her bed, do the Jumble every morning, keep her car keys under the front seat, tap the brakes to the beat of the song on the radio and sharing her families’ photos with strangers in the checkout line. “We wanted something that showed who she was,” her daughter Maryanne told an ABC-affiliate station in Wisconsin. “We said, ‘How can we be like her and carry her pinkness across?’”
The “pinkness” traveled across many borders.
As well as revealing funny and eccentric characteristics of the recently deceased, obituaries increasingly are becoming a venue for a public moment of truth. When Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick, 78, died in Nevada over the summer, her son and daughter saw an opportunity to unveil their mother’s true nature: “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.”
Her son, Patrick Reddick, was reported as telling Inside Edition he sang, “Ding- Dong! The Witch is Dead,” at news of her death and that he is sure, if there’s a hell, that’s where she is. The Reno Gazette-Journal removed the obituary from its website and is investigating how something so scathing made it into the paper.
There was more truth telling in a self-scribed obituary in the Salt Lake Tribune when Val Patterson, who died of throat cancer in 2012, owned up to a couple of misdeeds that had been weighing on him. “Now that I have gone to my reward,” he wrote, “I have confessions. … As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn (in 1971). … I wanted to get it off my chest. Also, I really am NOT a Ph.D. … I didn’t even graduate. Now to that really mean park ranger; after all, it was me that rolled those rocks into your geyser and ruined it. …” And to Disneyland: “… you can now throw away that ‘Banned for Life’ file you have on me, I’m not a problem anymore…”
Patterson also wrote about his cancer with some regret: “… I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me. Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with such happy words and moments.”
In contrast, Michael Blanchard’s leave taking seemed almost defiant: “Weary of reading obituaries noting someone’s courageous battle with death, Mike wanted it known that he died as a result of being stubborn, refusing to follow doctors’ orders and raising hell for more than six decades. He enjoyed booze, buns, cars and younger women until the day he died.”
Finally, in another widely emailed obituary from the Seattle Times, Jane Lotter also wrote about dying of cancer and was able to say goodbye in her own words: “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary. (The other advantages are no longer bothering with sunscreen and no longer worrying about your cholesterol.) … I met Bob Marts at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square on Nov. 22, 1975, which was the luckiest night of my life. … Bobby M., I love you up to the sky. Thank you for all the laughter and the love, and for standing by me at the end. Tessa and Riley, I love you so much, and I'm so proud of you. I wish you such good things. May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.”
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband. More info on Facebook and at www.obitkit.com.
Image via The Sun Herald