reading between the lines


I read the obituaries. But I no longer read a printed newspaper every day and the obits just are not the same in on line versions of newspapers. So I am forced to catch up on weekends when my satisfyingly fat Sunday papers arrive. I do not turn to the obituaries first due to a compulsive need to read the paper in proper order. When I finally get there I read them all, savoring the details, cringing at those my own age, and grieving the brief, one sentence send offs.

My first born believes that we need a law requiring all published obituaries to include the cause of death. Since the Melton women are all driven to complete any story, we speculate on the likely causes and soon enough it becomes the truth (at least to us.) A family exchange might be “Did you see the obituary for that 27 year old man from Conyers? It directed donations to the suicide hotline so I guess he killed himself.” Story thus derived, it becomes a true history. In the next telling it is likely to be “Did you see the obituary for the 27 year old man from Conyers who killed himself?”

Mama was the best at it. She added great details like love triangles, stabbings, and incest to her stories. She could tell it so convincingly that only her children (and later her grandchildren) knew to ask “Did you know them or did you just guess?” And she would confess to making it up, all the while citing the many clues that gave credence to her story.

For many years now I have clipped obituaries that I find interesting. They can be interesting because they are touching. One that I saved reads “I cannot hurt you again” and one laments “There is a hole in our hearts.” Some are interesting in the funeral details. Like “Men are to wear comfortable clothing, no ties. Women are just going to wear whatever they want anyway” or “No funeral will be held. Join us at the Rusty Nail Bar for drinks and memories.” Some are just interesting because they insert some humor, like the recent notice that mentioned a ménage a trois with the deceased, chili, and Gas-X. I also save those with interesting use of language like “survived by a plethora of cousins” or “she resided up Garner Holler” or “she outran us to the Kingdom.”

I also carefully read and clip the memorial notices. These are mostly puzzling since it seems they are for the benefit of the deceased. “Dear Karen, It has been a year since you left us.” Exactly where is the paper delivered? I guess it is likely that the deceased only read the online versions. Almost all memorial notices are bittersweet. You can feel the sadness behind the message to the departed. “Are there cell phones in Heaven” was the title of a fine memorial. I have been at this long enough to see the anniversaries roll by. Every year I see “Too cool to be forgotten” and “Still shopping in Heaven’s grocery store.”

I don’t consider myself picky but rather I see myself as gifted with a discerning eye for the tacky detail, learned at the knee of the master of criticism. Mama (the master) was disgusted by folks who used a picture that was not recent. “Humph” she would sniff, “Guess she didn’t want to show off how she looks now.” “I guess not Mama, she’s dead now,” was my customary response. She also loved the gory details when available. She struggled to recall the cause of death of an acquaintance telling me “She was decapitated, but that wasn’t the worst of it.” All I can figure is that the poor woman must have died hungry.

I still cringe at the folks who pass along at older than 30 years and their relatives find it necessary to list the high school glee club or their term as Sunday school class treasurer. As for me, I plan to write my own obituary. I want to be as irreverent as allowed and as vague as possible. I want to give them a reason to laugh and to speculate. Oh and I’m not above making up what is lacking. Graduated from Harvard, with honors; Mother of the Year, 25 years running; Sports Illustrated swim suit model, every single year; winner of the New York Marathon, 10 year record likely to never fall; friend to all, excepting the tacky few. I also plan to leave a memorial notice to be posted at the time of death. It will read; Dear Mama, I know you are reading my tacky obituary and wondering aloud how you raised such a daughter. Please know that I am sorry for this and all the other times I disappointed you. But it is comforting for me to know that some things never change. You will always wonder where you went wrong in raising me and I will always wonder why.

Nancy Melton

Nancy Melton

Nancy Melton has recently added "writer" to her biography. She works in the health insurance industry which has somehow become public enemy number one these days. She is proudest of her role as a wife, mother and grandmother (although writer comes dang close) and wishes she could still claim to be someone's daughter.

  1. Eileen Dight

    Bravo Nancy! I chuckled through every paragraph and wanted more. Your lifelong collection would make a book I’d buy. I’ve always been bemused by messages to the dead, pictured the Dear Departed reading them, sitting on a cloud. I’m going to rewrite my barebones obituary, inserting jokes.

  2. Will Cantrell

    Nancy, I love this piece. I’m glad to know that it isn’t just me who finds obituary pictures just a bit incredulous. In your garden variety obit picture, the subject generally looks to be the picture of health! Always figured that the facial expression on at least SOME of the people on the obituary page should convey a scowl (because they were sick for godsakes!). Or perhaps their expression should be a deer-in-the-headlights as they faced down an oncoming car. Me? I’ve already got my “last picture show” prepared. It’s me dressed in a suit and tie, but sticking out my tongue at everybody. The people who live with me swear all of this is perverse on my part, but I swear I’m right. I think your Mom might take my side.

    I also am doing my own obit –and eulogy too. I’m taking no chances when it comes to my side of the story being told the way it ought to be…truth or not. Great piece. Will

  3. Mike Cox

    Nice piece. I used to peruse my hometown obits in the Tuscaloosa News, until they wanted me to pay $12.95 each month for the privilege. I did pick up a gem one time. The deceased was “promoted to glory”. I still use that one.

    1. My hometown paper charges also. I have to depend on family members to tell me who has passed. I cut out an obit today from the AJC that starts “Jesus was waiting in the boat at the gates of heaven…”

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