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Sense and Nonsense: The view from the obituary desk can be revealing

February 18, 2013

By Lynda Hollenbeck

When I first started working for this newspaper — which was then known as The Benton Courier — one of the first assignments I drew was writing the obituaries.
In those days this was a pretty usual practice and, as far as I know, it continues today.
Obits, as a rule, aren't difficult to write. In my rookie days, we had a set style for all obits unless it was a feature obit highlighting the death of a community leader.
This has changed somewhat with the onset of paid notices that give family members a lot more leeway in determining what is said to mark the passing of their loved ones.
This is both a good and a bad thing.
As a practical, loyal employee, I'm not about to say anything in opposition to the paid obit. It serves both sides well, as a rule.
As an old-school journalist, though, I take issue with some of the language used to tell what happened.
I was taught in journalism classes that death is what occurs when someone is no longer living. You live; eventually you die. It's that simple.
But I've learned that saying someone "died" is something that a lot of people can't bring themselves to do.
I understand their pain. Been there, done it too many times, as most people know. There's nothing quite like shock and grief to color one's senses.
But the fact remains that the individual died. The earthly life as he/she knew it is done.
This is when I take up the Bible, in Ecclesiastes, where it says there's "a time to be born and a time to die ... "
It's that simple.
No matter whether the decedent "takes up angel wings," "entered the gates of Heaven," "put on his immortal crown," "made the eternal transition," "went to be with Jesus," "was peacefully lifted to heaven," "rode off to heaven's gates" or "now directs traffic from the streets of gold," one thing is absolutely certain: Before he could do any of these things, he had to die.
My saying all of the above isn't going to change any of the choices people make, nor should it. This is just Lynda making observations and commenting.
As I've dealt with funeral homes and families in conjunction with the passing of various individuals, I've had some interesting experiences, some of which never can be shared in this space.
But some can. My favorite follows.
Before the days of instant stuff — like faxes, Internet and emails — if an obit came to us from out of the area, we got it via the telephone.
An especially memorable obit call occurred sometime in the late 1970s. This was from a funeral home in another state — Indiana, I think, but I'm not sure about that. I just know it was a few states away.
The person on the phone began reading the obit to me as I typed his words. I think we had already acquired computers by this, but it could have been my manual Underwood typewriter I was using. That part of the experience is unclear.
I do remember vividly what happened next. I interrupted the man when he reported the funeral arrangements.
"Excuse me," I said. "I think I may have misunderstood the name of the church. Would you repeat that part?"
His response, according to my ears, was: "Jessie Mae Baptist Church."
I asked him to say the name one more time, and again I heard "Jessie Mae Baptist Church."
"Well, that's certainly an unusual name for a church," I replied. "How do you spell it?"
He responded: "G-E-T-H-S-E-M-A-N-E B-A-P-T-I-S-T."
And that's when I laughed. "Oh, you're saying GETHSEMANE."
I carefully enunciated the word. "Now I get it."
The caller was silent.
"Don't you understand?" I added. "As in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray the night before he was crucified."
There was another brief pause before the man replied, "Well, I'm not a Baptist."
You live, you die and along the way you may pass through Gethsemane.

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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