On saying good of the dead

Josh McMahan and Mike “Flathead” Blanchard probably never met.

But in death they are “bros” without the necessity ever coming between them of having a conversation, beer or even a fist fight. This is due courtesy of paid obituaries in two different newspapers in two different American cities which provided more truthful glimpses of their lives than the normal such notices that “God has another angel.”

I dare say obituaries are a passion of mine but have long been required reading. It’s not just that I am aging. Of that, it is true. I want to find out who died and if it is anyone that I know. And I say died as a lesson learned long ago from my gruff but prescient journalism professor who taught that clarity is essence in news writing.

“You don’t say, he passed-a-way,” Dr. Francine Hoffman said in her near phonetic delivery, “You don’t say, he en-tered the sweet, loving-arms-of-Jesus. You say-he-died.”

Of course, news stories or news obituaries are rarely a nutshell look at the departed — with a standard “he loved little kittens” thrown in — that is the paid obit. If one pays, practically anything within reason, good taste and libel standards, are fair game. I never saw the official obituary for Dr. Hoffman, who died only a few years after retiring from Stephen F. Austin State University, but perhaps it could be forgiven if an extra modifier was used to help describe a remarkable teacher.

Understand that obituaries, like funerals and memorial services, are not for the dead but for the living. Although, the notice may be the only time one gets his or her name in the paper. That first, perhaps, maybe second to making the local police blotter. One may also never realize until reading the obituaries that people you’ve seen in your town but don’t know lived an incredible life or did great things.

But it is even rare to read in a news story on local homicides that the victim was a “scoundrel” or a “skank.” The victim seems to be perpetually feeding the elderly or had a winning smile. This topic was once discussed among friends around a campfire after I had worked in the news business for awhile. We determined the perfect response for a reporter’s query about a victim of a shoot-out with police should be: “He was really quiet. He sat around cleaning his guns all the time.”

The two candid obituaries were found on a journalism news Website thus someone in the business figured others in the business would find them newsworthy, if not amusing. True, the obits for Josh and Mike solicit a laugh at a time in which our society, for the most part, would find inappropriate. We aren’t supposed to laugh about someone dying, especially when they might have put themselves there prematurely. Most of all we are to avoid truth at all costs when speaking of the dead. Didn’t your mother teach you: “It’s not nice to say bad things about the dead.” To which your smart-ass brother replies. “Joe Blow is dead. That’s good.”

It seems that same society tolerates the honest epitaph a bit better such as when little Johnny walks among the tombstones with his parents and spots a particular headstone. It reads: “Here lies a lawyer and an honest man.” To which Johnny remarks: “Mighty small grave for two men.”