Friday, December 5, 2014


When I worked in the library of the Washington Post in the early sixties, long before computers, I occasionally came upon a fat envelope in the files with some famous living person's name on it. Inside these envelopes were beautifully crafted obituaries, waiting to be pulled out and run in the paper as soon as the famous people died. The big papers still keep pre-written obits on file, I'm sure, but nowadays they're all digital. Sometimes I wonder whether the famous ever consider the fact that their obits have already been written. Kim Kardashian's obituary is sitting in the files of the Washington Post, I bet. How does she like that?

Here in Lambertville, Richard, the funeral director, writes the obituaries for his clients. We chatted with him about that the other day. One of the local guys had just died, a man everyone in town knew by sight. The obituary that appeared in the paper was mildly flattering. No mention, for instance, of the time he robbed the poor box at St. John the Evangelist. Harold wanted to know whether the wife of the deceased wrote it, and Richard said no, he did. "I write 'em all," he said. When he first came to town, old ladies would accost him on the street and say, "You got it wrong about Myrtle." He can only put down what the relatives tell him to, after all. With the passage of time he came to bury most of the old ladies, and now there is no one left to complain.

I read the obituary page of the Trenton Times every morning. You get to a stage in your life where you have a legitimate expectation of finding people you know. This morning I was brought up short by an obit (not of someone I knew, nor did Richard write it) of a Mercer County man whose proudest, and maybe only, achievement in life was that he bowled three perfect games.

Makes you think. What do we want to be remembered for? My sister, when she was dying, rather cruelly insisted that I write her obituary, listing all of her professional achievements as a fine artist, which were considerable, so that she could check it over before she checked out. To my horror I found after she was gone that the newspapers want money to run obituaries, and they make you pay by the inch. She wanted to be in the Washington Post. We couldn't afford even a truncated version. My feeling is, everyone who knew my sister knows what a marvelous woman she was, and the Washington Post can go chase itself. I bet they run Kim Kardashian's obituary for free.

What do any of us want to be remembered for? It was said of my aunt Kathleen that she made the best doughnuts in the Saint Croix Valley, although there was much more to her life than that. Of me, let them say that I made the best gumbo ya-ya in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and that I was exceedingly fond of my family and friends. Not that I'm expecting to cash in my chips anytime soon, but, hey, you never know.

© 2014 Kate Gallison


  1. This post has elements of nothing less than brilliance! There is a tone here that reminds me of some of the wonderful legal novels by Steve Martini and Shelby Yastrow I've been reading this fall! Now, I'm looking for one based on some of these ideas by Kate Gallison Dunn! tjstraw

  2. My mother spent her last years near me in New Jersey but worked most of her life in the Washington D.C. area. When she died her best friend wanted me to write an obit for the Washington Post. And I, like you, was unable to do that. I could do the writing but it cost the earth to have it appear there.
    I remember some celebrity (a person of achievment rather than someone famous for behaving badly) talking about the sobering moment when the Times makes an apppointment to get background for your obituary. I think they used to wait until people turned 65 but that may have changed.
    There are many things I could say Kim Kardashian and the people who achieve fame now, but it's Friday and I'm feeling lighthearted so I'll keep my mouth shut.