It’s an odd feeling when someone says they saw you in the obituaries in the morning paper.
Thursday’s edition of the Sedalia Democrat carried the obit for Helen Cairer, a Sedalia resident who recently died at age 88. Cairer’s obit opened with a reference to a column I wrote in 2014 encouraging people to inject some humor and personality into the final story of their life. Cairer and her daughter, Democrat columnist Rhonda Chalfant, took my comments to heart.
“Mother and I read your column and just cackled and decided we would both make our obituaries that way,” Chalfant told me.
The inspiration for my column was a humor-infused obit written by Walter George Bruhl Jr. for – Walter George Bruhl Jr. Yes, the Delaware grandfather wrote his own obituary, and it included a request to be cremated because his wife refused “to have him standing in the corner of the room with a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand so that he would appear natural to visitors.”
Cairer’s obit notes that she “failed completely as a gardener … even the flowered dress she once owned had died.” In addition, “She donated her body for scientific study, thus fulfilling her longtime ambition of becoming a cadaver.”
Chalfant wrote her mother’s obituary in 30 to 40 minutes, then came back to it later and spent another 30 minutes in editing.
“It took longer for it to get through on email than it did for me to write it,” she said. “It did not want to attach and it did not want to send.”
The message had a lighter tone than what is typically published.
“The old style of obits, ‘He was, he was, he was,’ is so boring,” Chalfant said. “I wrote my brother’s (obit) seriously but not in the ‘he was’ laundry list (style) and the newspaper edited all of my writing out because they had to follow their standard form.”
Thankfully, that mold has been broken, although I wish that had been the case when my mother died unexpectedly in 2008. I wrote her obit and while it followed the standard formula, it was a painful experience. I know people would have had a better sense of who she was and I would have handled the grieving process better if I had been able to write about what brought The Lady joy.
“I think we need to take a little more light-hearted look at things,” Chalfant said. “Death is not light-hearted and coping with death is not light-hearted, but sometimes we confuse real feeling about someone with sentimentality. I was trying not to do that – I was trying to give Mother’s good points without being overly cheesy.”
I told Chalfant I thought she succeeded in her quest and that, after reading Cairer’s obit, I was left feeling that I missed out on knowing a really fun and special person.
“She would be pleased that you said that,” Chalfant said.
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.