I returned this week from a short summer hiatus to discover that several friends and family members had forwarded to me the same obituary published by the Plain Dealer for Nancy Lee HIXSON (nee Wood). The death notice reflected the rather remarkable life of a woman in Northeast Ohio who died after a 10 year battle with lymphoma. Neither maudlin nor formulaic – the notice itself was a welcome sign of great things to come for new media.
If you have even been in the unfortunate position of having to write a death notice – and I have written many – it is a sobering process. With each word you try to distill a lifetime of love and bravery and honor, accomplishments and successes and failures, survivors and legacies and beloveds. It is the last and greatest thing to do for a loved one as you work the clean up detail of their life. And as a social formality, death notices have a certain structure and style in keeping with the journalistic tenets of honoring the dead. The Who, What, Where and When are evident – the Why can often be ignored. Enough details are given in the typical death notice so the reader can identify – “oh, that’s the John Smith who belonged to St. Christopher’s and graduated the year after me in high school.”
So for one (Nancy) Lee HIXSON in Northeastern Ohio to pen a clever obituary about herself and her life – and for her son to honor her by having it published at her passing – was for me a delightful diversion. As writers we find a certain comfort in the ritual of style and form. The measure of our success is based on how we use words within that form to connote a feeling while keeping the meaning clear and correct. The end result is a tightly constrained box of information. When you lift that restraint and open the door to innovation in expression you arrive at a new destination. Not only are we delivered a death notice of relevant information on (Nancy) Lee HIXSON – but we are introduced to her. We read about her and say – “Oh, what an interesting woman,” or “how delightful a tribute.” No formal portrait – but a barefooted (Nancy) Lee HIXSON sitting on the ground with her dogs – present for inspection.
The time constraints alone in journalism preclude that sort of thing from happening on behalf of the Common Man or Woman – unless, of course, the family or deceased provide it themselves. Those faceless souls who depart this earth may have one last shot at greatness in the final chapter they write or that are written on their behalf. Would this notice have been published 10 years ago? I doubt it. The casualness of new media discards the old formulas we once sought comfort behind. In this case I think it is a good and wonderful thing.