Lasting Words

by Jean T. D. Bandler, from the Winter 2020 Newsletter

An important task for family and friends is writing about a loved one who has died – the lasting words for an obituary, death notice, eulogy, or grave stone.

My interest began when callers occasionally asked how to sum up a life for a death notice, what to say at a memorial, what to put on a cemetery plaque? It was piqued further as I read specialized collections of eulogies, collected death notices, and attended numerous services. After 25 years at FCAofCT, here is what I learned.

Obituaries, or “short biographies”, are news articles, assigned by the editor to a reporter, that announce the death and describe the life of a well-known, important individual.

Most American obits are staid and few capture the zing and acid of some British ones; consider: “The 3rd Lord Moynihan provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle. His chief occupations were bongo-drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler, and police informer.”

In the past, one’s chance for a NYTimes’ obit depended on being very important – a President, Nobel Prize winner, infamous criminal, or possibly, a general, movie star, or extreme oddball eccentric. More recently, the Times has run retrospective obituaries of past ignored but remarkable people especially, minorities and women. In this pandemic, they run a regular section on “Those We Lost” to Covid.

A good obit writer is a combination of reporter and grief counsellor who helps kin to piece together a life, An Alaskan reporter wrote: “people lead all kinds of interesting and fulfilling lives, but they all end. My task is investigating the deeds, characteristics, and commitments made in that one…precious life” Another noted that each article should be unique: “You may have already written fifty-thousand obits, but for this person, it’s his one and only”.

If one is important or lucky enough to get an obituary, one can hope for a compassionate reporter who looks “for the good”.

Death Notices, considered classified advertisements, are announcements of an individual’s death and life; like all ads they are written by others and paid for, usually by the survivors.

Most notices are formal, giving the death (peaceful, unexpected, courageously fought), noting loving survivors, recounting education (often starting from high-school) profession, honors, hobbies, funeral or memorial plans, and ‘in lieu of flowers’ requests. Notices can be long or short, depending on the deceased’s life, the writer’s interest, and, perhaps, the ad’s price.

Recently, notices have begun to stray from the rigid form, personalizing the material; death may be presented as a continuation of a loved hobby – “he sailed on”, the notice may stress an important incident, loved song, or favorite food. In this polarized political year, the NYTimes has published requests to vote for Trump and others for Biden.

Few notices will match the verve, or nerve, of Joe Heller’s, reprinted in our 2019 newsletter, whose daughters lovingly recall their father’s pranks and jokes, (a childhood dog named “Fart”, predeceased by his pet goldfish), but we all can consider the best tone and the clearest examples to report the life of a loved one.

Eulogies, or funeral/memorial remarks, are the talks at a service that honor the life and mourn the passing of the deceased. Speakers may be family, friends, colleagues; sometimes only a few are chosen by the family, sometimes the service is similar to a Quaker meeting where anyone who is moved may speak. Plato wrote that eulogies should “extol the dead and exhort the living” and from Pericles in Athens to Lincoln at Gettysburg to Obama at Mother Emanuel Church, successful remarks have followed this advice.

While few of us will have such famous or eloquent speakers, all of us can choose ones who knew and will focus on the deceased with love, respect, and honesty; flaws and failures need not be ignored, but can presented with dignity. At one service, a colleague noted: “John was as funny sober as he was drunk, and in these last years of sobriety, he continued to regale us all.”

We have all been to services where the speakers were long, boring, off-key. (Two of the most maddening memorials I have attended were ones where the speakers diminished or disregarded the deceased. In one, an egotistical former boss began saying: “I’m sad that George never lived up to his full potential”, proceeding to ramble on about the organization, not George. In the other, a noted politician opened: “Katie asked me to write a poem for her memorial service, but I’ve been very busy and so will read, a sonnet I wrote for another tennis partner with the appropriate name change.)

The best advice is to choose speakers wisely, not for their fame or status but for their commitment to present their understanding of the individual to the audience.

Epitaphs are the words inscribed on a tombstone or grave plaque. Most inscriptions are simple with the name, the date of birth—date of death.

While the authenticity of many of the well-known epitaphs may be suspect, most are very funny. There are plays on names, as the family plot of John Rose: “This grave’s a bed of roses” or “on the 22nd of June, Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune”; There are twists on occupation: an author “has written finis”, a gardener is “transplanted”, and there are hints or loud shouts of marital strife:

Stranger, call this not a place

Of fear and gloom,

For me it is a pleasant spot,

It is my husband’s tomb.


Here lies my wife,

Here let her lie!

Now she’s at rest,

And so am I.

Some inscriptions fill in the dash between birth and death, giving the titles of important jobs, or the endearments of family roles. Egotists go further: an insignificant politician has already inscribed his mausoleum with the accolade “TRAILBLAZER”. Jefferson was far less grandiose: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, Father of the University of Virginia.”

In thinking about all these words – written, spoken, etched in stone – consider the appropriate tone; is it traditional or informal? Think about how to – and who should – express the endearing, enduring qualities of the deceased.


From the FCA of CT Winter 2020 Newsletter