Sunday, October 2, 2011

The ultimate obituary

Young reporters and editors don't work for a newspaper very long before they learn the importance of obituaries. Nothing in the newspaper connects so closely with readers. Many old-timers who were in the business before email and fax machines can recall having to interrupt work on all their oh-so-important front page story to take dictation from a funeral director calling in an obit.
And while some obituary editors deal with as many as dozens of obits a newspaper edition, the good ones keep in mind that it may be the only obituary the family of the person in that obituary ever deals with, so they're handled with care.
And there's a beauty to every obituary -- every person's life is truly a story, even if it's laid out in a seven-inch newspaper column or life facts. It's easy to see the life behind those facts. Some newspapers go the extra mile -- the Boston Globe is really good at this -- and take an obituary of a "regular person" and interview loved ones and make a story out of it.
But despite all this, most obituaries follow a familiar trajectory using familiar language and phrases. Born, schooling, jobs, organizations, avid bingo player, hunter or Red Sox fan. Family members. Funeral information.
Some newspapers, now that it's the norm to charge for obituaries, give the families more leeway in how it's worded or what's said.
Occasionally one will make the reader smile. For instance, Marianne Perry's obituary in a recent issue of the Morning Sentinel, Waterville, Maine's newspaper, said she passed away surrounded by her loving family "and her devoted cat, Wiggles." Readers later learned she liked to rescue stray cats, including the devoted Wiggles.
But even with more flexible standards, rarely does an obituary stay with someone who didn't know the person.
Recently, however, one appeared in the Morning Sentinel that was stunning in its simplicity. While it had few of the elements that a standard obituary has, it told its story so well it bears repeating here:

Stephen Carl Coleman, 59, loving husband of Sarah, and very proud father of Thomas, Tennie and Rachel, passed away Sept. 20, 2011, on Wood Pond in Attean Township. Steve was nearly in sight of his float plane, Coleman's Knoll and the hill he made his home, enjoying a calm day. He left home early in the morning, got some work done, saw some friends, purchased a coffee and then passed quickly. Steve accomplished more than most in his life, but most importantly he loved his wife, children, family and friends and did it well. In return he was loved and deeply respected by all, even when they didn't agree. Those who knew him will never forget him, and many will aspire to match him in many, many fields of endeavor.
A casual memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27, in his hangar, at his home, 859 Main St. in Dennistown. All are welcome to attend to reminisce and celebrate Steve's life.
In lieu of flowers, donations will be accepted towards a scholarship to benefit local students, aspiring pilots and the Jackman region in general. Please send donations to: Steve Coleman Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o SAD 12/RSU 82, 606 Main St., Jackman, ME 04945.
(Morning Sentinel, Waterville, Maine, Sept. 24)

Steve Coleman had died in a drowning accident. He was running for county commission and was well-known in the area. A news story when he died left no doubt he was an accomplished person who had done much for his community, had been involved in many organizations.

There were few details about his life -- those pedigree details by which we often define ourselves -- instead simply a remarkably dignified and beautiful message about who this man was. 
And what better purpose for an obituary?