The End of Feet of Clay; or Who Wrote the Better Obituary

So this is where we left off yesterday. “ Could you have paid a finer tribute to this man? What about this piece of writing, this tribute? How does this rank as an obituary? Can Uncle Dave transcend sports writing?”

The answer to that question involves an examination of the obituary. Advocates of the obituary believe that the obituary should be elevated to its proper place as an art form. This pronouncement was contained in Mark Singer’s amazingly upbeat article in the July 2012 New Yorker entitled The Death Beat. He derived the material for the article by attending the Fourth Great Obituary Writer’s Conference held in Las Vegas, New Mexico. (No, this is not a misnomer; the New Mexico Las Vegas is the far lesser version of the Nevada Las Vegas. View it as the low rent Las Vegas.) Singer looked at the present status of the obituary. “At too many American newspapers, writing obituaries is considered a second-class calling, the pasture where reporter whose legs have given out are sent to graze before being consigned to even more distant pastures.” He observed that at the present time American newspapers treat obituaries “as a revenue source rather than a literary opportunity.” Or a more colorful quote describes the landscape as a ”a grey expanse of pallid prose, that, for the most part sounds as if it had been written by a platoon of undertakers, which it generally is.”

Singer provides a narrative arc for the obituary. Newspapers in the 1880s featured elaborate literary epistles but in the 1920s the obituary died, because according to popular theory after WWI people grew sick of death. “A renaissance occurred in the 1950s when several British newspapers dared to treat obituaries like feature stories and hired talented editors to oversee them.” Suddenly the obituary pages offered leisurely narratives, lots of photographs and a refreshing aversion hagiography—what Struck calls the “posthumous parallax, a bending of life histories toward all that is light and wholesome, away from anything that might reflect unfavorably on the dead.”

Singer’s article, amusing as it is/was did not really address the art and science of the obituary. But Carolyn Gilbert, the founder of the conference, did contribute an insight into the guiding principle, what she called “the defining line, an insight into the heart and soul of a life.” When the defining line is missing – this is a common pitfall, she says of paid obituaries – the result is mediocrity, a long list of survivors but not much in the way of color.

So how does Uncle Dave measure up? The language is interesting enough, there is a narrative arc but did he really capture Wes, his accomplishments, the milestones of his existence. The answer is a resounding NO.

The handy dandy Internet supplies a treasure trove of material on Wes Champ. Wes was not a one dimensional man, hockey did not occupy all of his time – even during those long winter months when hockey was present. Wes had a deep sense of civic responsibility that led to his volunteer involvement in many organizations at both the municipal and provincial level. For instance, he served as President of the local YMCA; President of the Saskatchewan and Dominion Hotel Association and Restaurant Association; Director of the Regina Exhibition Board; member of the Board of Directors of Regina College; member of the Regina Board of Trade; and as a member of the Board of Metropolitan United Church. Wes had political aspirations and held office. In 1928, he served as an Alderman on Regina City Council. And Wes was not just a titular head; during his term as Chairman of the Regina General Hospital the nurses’ home and the power house were built. Then in times of crisis he was there. In 1931 he organized the Saskatchewan Voluntary Relief Association and served as its chairman. This organization collected food and clothing for rural residents of the province during the Depression.

There was so much more to this Wes Champ’s life. Hockey was almost a hobby. Uncle Dave, you did not acknowledge the rest of his life. Was this because, Uncle Dave, there was nothing else in yours save sports? Or did you just dash this piece off, off the top of your head? Were you too lazy to do the necessary research? Do you have feet of clay, Dave Dryburgh? It appears that Uncle Dave cannot write an obituary to save his soul.

I look to the obituary written on the death of Jessie Elaine Dryburgh I wrote it. In order to evaluate my mother’s obituary, I look to Singer’s criteria of: “the defining line, an insight into the heart and soul of a life.” It is there. According to “Elaine’s writings, “my life began at forty” when she joined what was to become the United Church Women (UCW), in affiliation with Edmonton’s Kirk United Church. A dedicated volunteer and organizer throughout her life, a summary of the many positions Elaine held with UCW covers three printed pages, culminating with her service as President of the Alberta Conference UCW from 1974-1976.” But the obituary also recognizes that her life was not one dimensional and then it reports her later in life obsession with quilting. “She not only made quilts for her children, grandchildren, family and friends but she also gained some measure of fame, coming to be known, respectfully, as “the bag lady.” “It all began in 1990 when I made my first bag,” she wrote. Her unique, personal tote bags were fashioned of cloth, utilizing patchwork patterns. She kept records of the colors and patterns, photographed each of them and recorded who their recipients were. At the time that her story, “When the Bag Lady Must Retire,” was written, “she had made more than five-hundred!” Tote bag recipients were urged to bring them to the funeral service.

That obituary captured a life in full and provided a narrative arc that paralleled the deceased’s life. I wrote it. I did not even like the woman.

This blog contains an obituary (of sorts) describing the life and times of Paul Skvaril. It did, as much as possible capture his life in full and there was a narrative arc. It was one of the most difficult pieces I ever wrote and took all of my compassion and empathy to complete it. I was not fond of that man.

It is with some shame and much humility that I recognize my competition with Uncle Dave. I began with the intent of recognizing, cherishing and applauding his writing but slowly this is morphing into something else. I seem to want a share of recognition, even his share. I am not liking this turn of events. I want to return to my stance of the adoring niece.

This newly discovered competitive streak within my soul feels like a curse. It is not a curse that will lead to vengeful killing – there is no one left to kill – for one thing. But it is the beginning of a sense of disillusionment. Where will it lead?


It ended with the understanding that Uncle Dave and I are two very different people, living in a different time and in a different age. We have our similarities – our ambition, an ability to communicate probably born from a sense of alienation. He died in 1948, I live on.

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