I recently had to write an obituary. For my dad.
He was 92, sharp, and living in his own home. But he was succumbing to age. His knees were bad and he had trouble breathing so he hobbled when he walked and had to stop every ten steps or so to catch his breath. He was a strong man whose strength was being directed to the simple act of living.
He was at a peaceful place in his life where he accepted that if he didn’t die last year he could easily die next year.
They say you can’t put a value on a human life. Try writing and publishing an obituary. You pay by the word. Pictures are extra. It adds up quickly. A good obituary, paradoxically, describes a person’s life in as few words as possible.
An obituary starts off grimly with a one sentence announcement of death. It is the ultimate in spoilers. You know how it ends before you even start reading.
Then you add some concise biographical information. Which if the deceased is 92 and had a full life starting with his birth in Kansas and upbringing in St. Louis and on to his military service in WWII, his sports accomplishments, his education, his marriage, career, children, relocations, retirement, hobbies, grandchildren and great grandchildren pretty much blows the “few words as possible” objective.
An obituary weaves in the more human characterizations of the deceased’s life that convey what a person was like, not just what he or she did.
In as few words as possible.
My father was a sincerely kind man with a welcoming smile who gave hugs that made you feel warm, appreciated, respected, and safe. That is how the world rightly perceived him.
So I wove into his obituary, "He touched all who knew him".
Fortunately I proof read it before I sent it. "He touched the hearts of all who knew him", I added. I didn’t want the record of his life to suggest that he was an innocent victim of the Me Too Movement, even if it cost me a few extra words.
Sometimes obituaries recount a poignant story. But there are just so many.
My dad didn’t have a hateful bone in his body, but in his later years he developed some ill will toward his computer. He was confounded by all of the cryptic errors and requests to update something or other with intrusive pop up boxes that commanded him to click here and then crashed his computer when he did.
He was a mechanical engineer by profession and had a hard time understanding why things stopped working without reason.
Recently he received a Windows critical update warning. He clicked on the button that said click here and the computer displayed a blank blue screen with a bunch of text that was too small for him to read. This is how he explained it to me. He told me the screen stayed that way for a long time and would probably be there still if he didn’t seize control and shut the damn thing down.
It seems to me that when you are 92 years old you shouldn’t have to endure the frustrations of technology. Life is too short, even when you have already lived it all.
It was time to get a new computer I told him. One that wouldn’t be subject to software updates and security alerts and frozen screens just because it was old and the operating system was out of date.
“You mean like me?” he joked.
The next day I received the phone call that I could have received a year ago or could have received next year. It was from the police. They were in his home.
It made a good opening for his obituary. Henry Christmann, 92, passed away peacefully in his home after a long battle with Microsoft. He would have laughed.
But of course, I didn’t write that. I kept his obituary warm and straightforward. Like the man he was.
An obituary closes with a list of surviving family members and an announcement of funeral arrangements.
My sister and I and our kids and a few other family members and friends spread his ashes in California’s Monterey Bay as was his wish. We had to get a permit. His best friend from childhood, also 92, played taps on the trumpet and one by one we threw a single rose into swirling blue waters where my dad came to rest.
I didn’t think it was possible to advertise those touching tears of remembrance into something factual so I omitted the arrangements too.
Because trying to edit the essence of a man’s life into 300 words is not easy.
But not nearly as hard as hitting send.