An Obit Writer and an Essayist Walk Into a Church…

Yesterday I stepped into church, Catholic Church, for the first time in about a year.

I still do the holy water, the genuflection and the kneeling. I will always love the Nicene Creed. I don’t take Communion. So, walking in I do the holy water and proceed down the aisle. I get only a few steps before a man, whom I’ve never seen before, stops me.

“I read what you wrote in the paper. Very nice.”

One can respond to this a few different ways:

  • “Thanks. Who are you?”
  • “Thanks.” (elegant, multipurposefully appropriate, offensive only when sarcastic)
  • “Who are you?” (no)
  • “Thanks. What are you talking about?”

One time I made cupcakes and it was 2 a.m. before I realized I had exhausted my supply of cupcake papers.

I went with a variation on Option D. “Oh,” I say. “The cupcakes piece?”

He looks at me blankly for a minute, like cupcakes have evolved from this anyone-can-bake-it party staple into a mystery of faith. “Cupcakes? Hmm…”

“No,” is what he actually says. “The obituary.”

I had to laugh, because to me the paid death notices in the newspaper all follow the same, fact-based, minimally creative format. They’re expensive to run, so understandably most death-notice writers go with the bare minimum: Insert name here, date there, wrap it up with visitation and donation information. When I wrote my grandfather’s obit last week, I never thought of it as an act of writing.

Anyway, I thanked the gentleman who turned out to be the undertaker. I explained that I had written something else “about cupcakes” a few weeks ago, so I wasn’t sure which piece he meant.

Thirty minutes later, my aunt arrives with her husband, John.

“My mother showed me the piece you wrote in the paper,” John says after a round of hugs and condolences.

“The obituary,” is my succinct, all-knowing reply.

“No, it was the piece about your, well, about schools.” John gets a little vague for a moment and I know why and I’m used to it. He is talking about the cupcakes.

We laugh as I recount my talk with the undertaker. If anyone had mentioned my “pancakes” post during yesterday’s funeral, the confusion would have thickened like a stack of buttermilk flapjacks in the logging-camp kitchen. Been thinking about loggers lately – the result of some low-grade family research I’ve been doing to prep for my grandfather’s funeral.

Writing advice

So here is what I’ve learned – about writing, not logging:

  • If you want to write a great obit: do the basics; modify an adjective like “loving” with an unexpected but accurate adjective like “brusque”; add one or two sentences of character description for warmth and flavor. For Grandpa Tom, we went with: “For years he took a daily cup of coffee at the old McDonald’s restaurant on Packard Avenue.” Poetry that ain’t, but it’s a humanizing moment and proof that “small stuff” can reveal one’s character.
  • If you want to write a memorable essay, give it a quirky title. Trust me, I’ve written some snoozers. Folks might forget the content, might disagree with the content, dislike your tone or perspective, but they will remember you wrote something somewhere if the title sticks. And they’ll mention it! So many people have mentioned “cupcakes” to me in the last few weeks that my next piece, no matter what it’s about, will have “eclair” in the title. Or chutney!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Erin
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 03:09:53

    So funny and poignant, Ma’am.


  2. Chutney Challenged
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 04:02:15

    Yes. I loved every awkward, confusing, light-hearted moment of those two encounters. Also, a reminder I need to submit my work to more than one place. Esp. when that place don’t pay 😉


  3. Chutney Challenged
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 04:04:27

    Hey Sierralei, thanks for finding me. Alas, it’s not real cupcakes I’m writing about these days. Interestingly, the guy I wrote the obit for was my grandfather. He spent several months in Saipan during the war. Happy reading & writing to you.


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