The Elusive Berkeley Obituary
by Steed Dropout
May 14, 2014
ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE OBITUARY CHIMES
I’m sweating from all glands as I type the news-obituary of a close friend who was one of Berkeley’s first art-house cinema owners, typing his obit on his own typewriter, a sleek antique. That was 2007. Maybe I was sweating because In the last obit I wrote, in 1958, I killed off the wrong guy, one of two prominent local businessmen with the same first and last names.
A has-been reporter and short story writer, in 2007, I hadn’t written so much as a grocery list in thirty-five years. Some force I can’t explain, drove me. Was I haunted by demons, like those in Exorcist2, a fave of my movie friend, because it is set near his alma mater?
Would I kill off the wrong guy? I hoped so. Or would I get some other detail wrong?
I like to think that my interest in obituaries is no more than that of other grave-digging newspaper voyeurs. Some of my first reporting for my hometown paper, in 1958, was obituaries. In those days I didn’t know the corpse (that was to change).
At my hometown paper, I got my obit-info from local undertakers, the coroner’s office, and the “morgue,” as we called it–news clips files.
One lousy middle initial wrong and I see the corpse downtown feeding his parking meter. I considered myself fortunate to not have been fired. That was to come on another Illinois paper, for another lapse.
In 2008, I attempted yet another personal (or memoir) obituary. The copy-gal at the Berkeley Daily Planet confided to me that my friend was an “ass-hole.” But the obit ran.
I began writing fanciful commentaries for the then print edition of the Berkeley Daily Planet. By 2011, I was churning out news and features there.
Maybe I’d beaten a 35 year writer’s block, maybe not. Like a recovering alcoholic, you are never cured, just recovering and subject to relapse.
I wrote another obit recently, vowing not to use my purple prose to compete with the dead man. But compete I did. Now I face another obit, either an ordeal, or an opportunity. This one is a feature story about a Caffe Mediterraneum 91-year-old Medhead–for 55 years–who regularly commuted from a VA hospital fifty miles from the Med. Blind, and nearly deaf, he was surrounded by friends at an outside Med table on Telegraph only two days before he died.
THE CHALLENGE OF OBITUARIES
Be sure you have named the correct corpse.
From Shakespeare’s “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” to contemporary celebrity deaths on the news obituary pages, the obituary, like the grave, can be a pitfall.
Like skeletons, there is not much meat on them obituary bones, yet those bones must be properly arranged or they will collapse. We’d like to think we know the dead our obits try to depict.
Using news clips, interviews sometimes conducted by an obituarist, sometimes magazine and newspaper interviewers, interviews with family, friends, and co-workers of the dead…the obituarist grinds out his sausage.
Only full-scale biographies can–but may fail–to characterize the celebrity dead. In the rush to familiarize the recent dead to large audiences, who only know such celebrities through media, obituarists rely on meat-grinder procedures.
Historical figures, like Ulysses S. Grant, or Richard M. Nixon will have cunningly tried to influence their legacy through their own accounts of their achievements.
The rest of us must make do with whatever our survivors can throw together and pay to publish in the press. It is clear from these hackneyed homages that we all fought our diseases and died surrounded by loving family members.
Serial killers become their crimes and politicians become their legislative achievements. Any attorney will acknowledge that the dead lose their influence. What is to be done? Skeletons seem to have clenched jaws, although that is a manipulation of archeologists.
These are my thoughts, as I try once more to speak for the dead, in search of the elusive Berkeley obituary.
These views do not represent those of other publications in which my work appears.