Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The evolving art of crafting an obituary May 12, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Even after family has departed this life, their memory is as close as the graves that surround Moland Lutheran Church.

This Moland Lutheran Church Cemetery in rural Steele County Minnesota lies next to farm fields. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration purposes only.

HAVE YOU NOTICED in recent years, like I have, the trend to personalize obituaries?

No longer are obits just a listing of factual information. Rather, they now often offer personal insights from loving family members. This is exactly what I was not taught in journalism school. I learned right away that nothing is more important than writing an obituary. That long ago lesson involved not a bit of commentary. Just straight facts. Birth, education, occupation, marriage, death, survivors. And, above all, spell the name correctly.

Times have changes. Most newspapers now charge for printing obituaries. Thus, if you’re paying for all those words about your loved one, you may as well write what you wish.

I find myself reading obits more often than I once did. Yes, I sadly now know a lot more people who are dying. But I’m also interested in reading the stories of those individuals whom I’ve never known.

For example, recently The Gaylord Hub, where I worked as a reporter and photographer at my first newspaper job fresh out of college and, yes, wrote my first published obits, printed three death notices that grabbed my attention. All of them were obituaries for retired or semi-retired farmers, men who devoted their lives to working the land in this rural southern Minnesota county.

I learned that Dennis Grams, 70, “enjoyed everything about farming—the equipment, animals, crops and weather. If you had a question about farming, he was the man to go to. He had a way of explaining everything so that you could understand and would not stop explaining until he was sure you understood.” Seems to me Dennis was not just a farmer, but a teacher, too. And a patient one at that.

And then there’s Kenneth Quast, 81, who lived his entire life on the farm his father purchased in the 1920s. Kenneth worked that land and milked cows. His obit states: “He enjoyed farming, it was his life.” Oh, to do what you love. Your entire life.

Finally, Elmer Otto, 93, just couldn’t stay away from his Kelso Township farm. “…even after retiring he still had to go out and make sure things were running smoothly.” Elmer clearly loved his life’s work, just like Dennis and Kenneth.

How about you? Can you say that about your life—that you did what you loved? What would you want included in your obituary?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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18 Responses to “The evolving art of crafting an obituary”

  1. A few years ago a Richmond family published a hilarious obituary which sort of went viral around these parts of their rapscallion, politically-incorrect father. He must have been a hoot. The British are notorious for the obituaries of their public figures which do not shrink from making keen observations as to character and accomplishments.

  2. Marneymae Says:

    Yes! The obituaries have indeed changed… The elder (woman) I worked for would read them out loud to me, some of ones written in her alma mater were simply eloquent. Rich with story of their life, & I enjoyed getting a deeper sense of the person. A mini-biography.
    Great question… I’m not sure what I’d write, but I’ll be with that question.
    Beautiful photo

  3. Almost Iowa Says:

    Several years ago, the following obituary went viral on the internet. It’s too bad someone else wrote it. I would have loved to claim it as my own.

    “Weary of reading obituaries noting someone’s courageous battle with death, Mike 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 enjoyed booze, guns, cars and younger women until the day he died.”

  4. I love reading obituaries like that. People who lived long full lives.

  5. Littlesundog Says:

    I like the personalized obits. I like funerals that are carried out that way too. We used to have a young priest here in town that was a “realist” when it came to funerals. If you didn’t know the person when you went, you surely did when you left. And the service was always presented in a kind manner and sometimes humorously done… but there was always something to be learned about that person’s life. I thought Father Mike did a wonderful tribute to each person – there is importance in all life. I think obits should reflect the same if people desire!

  6. Sweet Posy Dreams Says:

    What I notice in many obituaries is the use of adjectives. “Devoted” husband, “loving” wife: why doesn’t anyone ever say “grouchy”? And the deceased always seem to fight a “courageous” battle against whatever disease killed them. I like the obit Almost Iowa cited above. I’ve never seen one like that myself.

  7. Again, so interesting! Love your insights.

    • Thank you. I read an obit today about a 105-year-old woman who kept honeybees with her husband. When he died in 1965, she continued on with her son in the honey business. The obit stated that she often called people “honey.” Isn’t that a sweet story? I remember writing a feature article on this family’s honey business when I worked for the Gaylord newspaper.

  8. Deanna Says:

    Obituaries can be interesting reading, and now that I am into my 70s, I am reading them more often. I’m leaving mine up to my kids and their sense of humor. I’m amazed at some of the things they insist happened during their growing-up years. Wait a minute. I’d better write it myself.


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