By Chad Greene
My father wrote, for many years, too many, obituaries for our hometown newspaper. Why “too many?”
Because, in the newspaper business, he explained, the obituary desk traditionally serves two functions. For young reporters, it’s a proving ground. Promotion to the obits beat is supposed to help them to understand the importance of speaking politely in phone interviews and spelling correctly the names in articles. For old reporters, it’s a dumping ground. Demotion to the obits beat is supposed to help them understand the importance of retiring quickly and quietly.
For my father, there were no “glory years” in-between two traditional tours of duty on the obituary desk. There was only one that lasted for many years, too many. But even after he had lost hope of a promotion from the obits beat that would, admittedly, inevitably lead to a demotion to the obits beat, he continued to take pride in his craft.
In particular, he was proud that – despite the if not hundreds, then thousands, of obituaries he composed for the paper – he never repeated himself, with the exception of four sentences. These four sentences, his time on the obits beat had helped him to understand, were the most important.
Near the start of the obituary, he always wrote both of the first two sentences.
_________ has died.
He was _________.
The blank in the first, he explained, was filled in with the name of the subject of the obituary, which was always different. But it was the next two words, “has died,” which were always the same, that my father insisted were most important in this sentence.
“Why ‘has died’?” I asked.
“Because a newspaper is supposed to deal in facts, not in fantasies – however comforting they might be,” he explained. “So you must state the fact that the subject ‘has died.’ So you must resist the temptation of euphemisms: no ‘has been called home,’ no ‘has gone to a better place,’ no ‘has gone to his reward,’ no ‘has gone to meet his maker.’ Until there’s some evidence to prove otherwise, those euphemisms are fantasies, not facts.”
The blank in second, he explained, was filled in with the age of the subject of the obituary.
“What’s most important in this sentence?” my father quizzed me.
Feeling philosophical, I guessed, “‘He was’?”
He sighed. “Only three terms to choose from, and you choose the two that aren’t right.”
“The age is most important?”
“The age is most important,” he confirmed, “because that’s how the newspaper’s readers keep score.”
“If they’re younger than the deceased, he’s winning. If they’re older than the deceased, they’re winning.”
“It’s that simple?”
“It’s that simple.”
“Shouldn’t it be quality of life that’s most important, not quantity of life?”
“Quality is subjective,” he scoffed. “Quantity is objective; it’s a number, a fact. Newspapers are supposed to deal in facts.”
Near the end of the obituary, he always wrote one of the last two sentences.
He is survived by _________.
He leaves no survivors.
Although filling in the blanks in the former meant more work for my father – more names to spell correctly in the article – he hated to write the latter.
“The most painful line of all,” he sighed. “The saddest sentence in the English language.”
He hated to write it, but he had – if not thousands, then hundreds of times. So, after finally retiring if not quickly, then quietly, he made a silent promise to his successors on the obits beat: He would not make one of them write it in his obituary.
So, at the age of 65, he – somehow, even my mother herself can’t recall how he did it – managed to seduce one of the nurses at his retirement home. That’s where he explained what his time on the obits beat had helped him to understand, as I sat by his bedside. When he died – not ‘was called home,’ not ‘went to a better place,’ not ‘went to his reward,’ not ‘went to meet his maker’ – I composed this simple poem.
Then I forced myself to do something poets hate to do. I did the math.
For those keeping score, he’s winning.
– A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, Chad Greene is an assistant professor of English at Cerritos College. Whenever he isn’t planning lessons or grading papers, he is attempting to put together a novel-in-stories tentatively titled Trips and Falls.