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A Look At The Challenges Of Writing Obituaries


She will not be missed, thus reads the concluding sentence in one of the most jaw-dropping obituaries we've ever read. The obituary for Kathleen Dehmlow starts innocently enough, that she was born March 19, 1938. It mentions her parents' names, her husband, their two kids, Gina and Jay. It's paragraph 3 that takes an unexpected turn. Quote, "in 1962, she became pregnant by her husband's brother."

The next paragraph adds, she abandoned her children. And then we arrive at the final devastating sentence, she will not be missed by Gina and Jay and they understand that this world is a better place without her. This Obituary ran this week in Dehmlow's hometown paper, the Redwood Falls Gazette, in Minnesota. And it had us thinking about who gets the last word on a person's life.

Susan Soper helps people write obituaries for family members. And we've asked her to join us and weigh in on this. Susan Soper, welcome.

SUSAN SOPER: Thank you, Mary Louise. Happy to be here.

KELLY: What's your reaction when you read that obituary?

SOPER: Well, I was not as shocked, maybe, as some people. There have been other obituaries that have been as savage in that way. I've probably seen half a dozen or so since I became an avid obituary reader.

KELLY: Are there any limits, any rules on what can or can't be printed? I mean, I'm thinking you can't libel the dead.

SOPER: You're not supposed to speak ill of the dead.

KELLY: True.

SOPER: There are not as many taboos as there used to be. It wasn't so long ago that same-sex partners were not mentioned in obituaries, that children out of wedlock were not mentioned or acknowledged in obituaries. Of course, suicides and addictions, overdoses, you see those in the paper all the time now, that families are trying to - they're becoming more honest about how their child or relative died.

I've got dozens of obituaries where families have said, I hope that if you are a teenager reading this or if you are a parent reading this, you will try to stop something before it's too late.

KELLY: Do you think that's true that the impulse is more and more to just lay out all the facts, as opposed to the idea that, look, somebody is gone, let's sum this up in a nice, clean, neat way?

SOPER: I think that - I have a theory that after 9/11 when The New York Times wrote those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, thousands of very short, poignant obituaries in their pages of...

KELLY: I remember those. They were beautiful, like poetry.

SOPER: They were fabulous. And they were, you know, small bios of people, not just the CEOs and the presidents of company but the dishwashers, the elevator operators, the taxi cab drivers. Everybody was recognized as a whole person. And they had fun anecdotes, they made you cry, they made you smile. And to me, that was sort of when the tide turned in obituaries and people realized that you could bring a person to life and keep them alive in even a short written bio, really.

KELLY: Is there an example that comes to mind of someone or a family who was really struggling to write the obituary for a family member and how you helped them work through that?

SOPER: You know, one that always comes to mind for me is a man in Maine. His wife was in hospice, and they wanted to do them together before she died. She was only 60. She had lung cancer. He called me, actually, or emailed me and said, we ran out of time. My wife died. I have started her obituary, but I need some help. Could you help me finish it? And he had done a good job, but he left out a lot of the colorful detail about her.

But one of the things that struck me was that she had had a child out of wedlock when she was quite young and had reconnected with that daughter. And I think the way we said it in the obit was something like one of the joys of her life was reconnecting with her daughter, just really embraced it.

KELLY: Well, Susan Soper, thank you.

SOPER: Thank you, Mary Louise, nice talking to you.

KELLY: Nice speaking to you, too. Susan Soper, she's an expert on obituaries and author of the workbook the "ObitKit" to help people write them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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