The New York Times has long been home to the literary, whimsical obit.
The genre was polished by the masters Alden Whitman and Robert McG. Thomas Jr. -- McG. for short. (Near the top of everyone's list is the paper's Portraits of Grief, thumbnail portraits of the people missing in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center. But that project was produced by the news staff of the Metro desk, not the obits page.)
Even at the Times, it wasn't so long ago that the obit page was viewed disdainfully as "the Irish sports pages," according to "The Dead Beat," written by Marilyn Johnson and published in 2006.
That was the year humor columnist Art Buchwald announced his own death in a video obit, part of the "The Last Word" series: "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died." The video includes narration by reporter Tim Weiner, and Buchwald's musings about his life. It was ahead of its time and showed how far the paper's obituary page had come.
Now, although an obit subject must still be deemed newsworthy, colorful characters regularly join the stuffy, important people -- thanks to deft writers such as the Times' Margalit Fox. Trained as a linguist, Fox has been writing obits for nearly nine years and seems to specialize in inventors -- of the Frisbee, the crash test dummy, the Etch-a-Sketch and the Magic Fingers vibrating bed, to name a few. But she also writes the obits that people share. Consider John Fairfax.
"John Fairfax, Who Rowed Across Oceans, Dies at 74," reads the headline over the photo of the waving, shirtless man. He was dashingly handsome, and so of course it caught my attention. And then I read the first line: "He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there."
Delightful. But so was the second line: "He made both crossings in a rowboat because it, too, was there, and because the lure of sea, spray and sinew, and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans without steam or sail, proved irresistible." And so it went, one delicious phrase tumbling into the next: "At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle. At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar." At the very end of his bracing run, he passed the time playing baccarat, the game of James Bond.
I posted the obit on my Facebook page and the response was overwhelming. There were other fans of the quirky obit out there. Who knew?
A few weeks later, a reporter friend graced my Facebook wall with the death notice of Michael "Flathead" Blanchard, who "wanted it known that he died as a result of being stubborn, refusing to follow doctors' orders and raising hell for more than six decades." He listed his hobbies as "booze, guns, cars and younger women." He informed the world that "Baba Yaga can kiss his butt," and that "many of his childhood friends that weren't killed in Vietnam went on to become criminals, prostitutes and/or Democrats."
Facebook: Obits' new stomping grounds
Facebook has become central receiving for quirky obits. That's how I got to know Harry Weathersby Stamps, Toni Larroux, the bra lady and the rocket scientist.
Stamps, who lived in Mississippi, is perhaps best known as the man who hated daylight saving time.
His obit was written by his daughter, a lawyer from Dallas, and opens with this line: "Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies' man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013."
It noted his gustatory passions: "He had a life-long love affair with deviled eggs, Lane cakes, boiled peanuts, Vienna [Vi-e-na] sausages on saltines, his homemade canned fig preserves, pork chops, turnip greens, and buttermilk served in martini glasses garnished with cornbread." And, it noted that "the women in his life were numerous. He particularly fancied smart women."
Stamps considered daylight saving time to be "the devil's time," and died the day before he would have had to "spring forward" and set the clocks ahead an hour. "This can only be viewed as his final protest," the family's obituary noted.
The obit went viral, and it can safely be said that more people knew Harry Stamps in death than in life. Hayes Ferguson at Legacy.com, which aggregates newspaper obituaries, said Stamps so far has received more than 750,000 page views.
Toni Larroux's family-written obit may have blurred the lines between fact and fiction, but it, too, was a hoot. It was written by her children in a hospital cafeteria as she lay dying. They insisted that it was the way she'd want to be remembered:
"Waffle House lost a loyal customer on April 30, 2013. Antonia W. "Toni" Larroux died after a battle with multiple illnesses: lupus, rickets, scurvy, kidney disease and feline leukemia. She had previously conquered polio as a child contributing to her unusually petite ankles and the nickname "polio legs" given to her by her ex-husband, Jean F. Larroux, Jr."
Obits for the bra lady and the rocket scientist were written by the same New York Times scribe, Douglas Martin. The bra lady's obit, clever and uncontroversial, went like this: "Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B."
But the rocket scientist's obit caused an outcry that led the editors to take the rare step of changing the lead sentence in a published obit.