A Good Newspaper Obituary is Hard to Find

by Carolyn Zeitler

I love reading the obituaries in the paper. This is probably a good thing in my line of work as the archivist at the Kelley House. I am continually looking for information about people long gone that will help me understand their story. Who was this person? Where did they come from? What did they do? Who were they related to and who did they leave behind?  Obits are about lives, not death, and some of the best obituaries are of people you would not necessarily have ever heard of. In my own experience, reading about the lives of people I document and record gives me a sense of community with them. I feel as if they are members of my extended family.

In the past, newspaper journalists wrote the obituaries for the local papers – the dead beat, as it was called. They often took more of the form of commentaries and many make for entertaining reading. Take the case of Charles Perkins. The caption reads, “Charles A. Perkins Crosses the Dark River.” “Mr. Perkins was truly one of God’s noblemen; a man so rare that to know him was but to love him. A giant in physique, he was as gentle as a child and as tender-hearted as a first born’s mother.”

“Good Man Dies at Fort Bragg After Long Illness.” George A. Boyd was a well-known resident and businessman in Mendocino, who died in 1925. Mr. Boyd had been in ill health for several years but “he knew that the end was near and awaited its coming with all courage and fortitude.” As a business man, Mr. Boyd was “most conscientious and square in all his dealings.” Robert Tait, a prominent and highly respected citizen who died in 1902, “dropped dead at his home last Tuesday morning. He had apparently been enjoying his usual health, and when the final summons came, he was at work in his garden . . . Deceased was a native of Scotland, aged 63 years.”

Jesse Dwinelle, for many years a resident of this place, died in 1922 at the age of 61 from failing health. He was a painter, a mill worker and served several years as a constable. “Deceased was quite an athlete in his younger years and an expert boxer.” I think I would have liked to have known this man. Even the descriptions of services came with a worthy observation of the writer in the case of James Nichols, a Mendocino pioneer and businessman. It was reported that, “Rev. Van Horne conducted the service. He faithfully delineated the departed man’s character when he likened him to the stalwart and upright pines of his native state (Maine); to the rugged and clean cut line of the New England coast.”

One unfortunate aspect of early obituaries is that women were featured very infrequently unless they were married to prominent men. One such mention of a women was in the May 21, 1902, Fort Bragg Advocate. “Mrs. Theodore Van Damme died in San Francisco. Her remains were brought to Fort Bragg for burial on May 15, 1902, with the Rev. J. S. Ross officiating.” Poor Mrs. Van Damme, doesn’t even have her own first name. In these more enlightened times, we now have obituaries of wonderful women who made important contributions to our coast. Take Evelyn Shannon Park, who was honored by the Mendocino Rotary Club as an Outstanding Citizen. A member of the Mendocino Study Club, a docent at the Kelley House, a member of the Read and Feed book club and League of Women Voters, she also picked up trash along the roadsides. “Not infrequently, one could see this elegant lady, in high heels and gloves, gathering cans and bottles that had been tossed out of cars.”

Some major papers, like the New York Times, continue the practice of printing well-written and important coverage of the recently departed. For many local papers, however, those articles are left to the funeral home or to the family. What is often presented of a person’s life is now a mere listing of facts. “Alice B. Smith, (insert age), a resident of Elk, died on (insert date), at Mendocino Coast Hospital, following a long illness. She was born (insert date) to (insert names) and lived most of her life in (insert place). In 1929, Alice married (insert name). She is survived by (insert survivors) Funeral services will be held (insert place).What we are left with is a two-dimensional image of a person whose life has been reduced to a form letter. Here is an obituary that leaves everything to the imagination and tells us nothing at all. What we are left without is the real life of this person who lived and loved and experienced things in a very unique way. I am sure there is a great deal to say about Alice B. Smith that really should have been said.

An obituary is the celebration of the ordinary person. What makes a good obituary is how quickly it tells us what it is we are losing when a unique individual has gone. A good obituary evokes emotion and gives the reader a sense of the person’s character. In the end, it is an act of reverence and our immortality.