KELLY'S KORNER: Writing obituaries

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The first thing I ever wrote for a daily newspaper was an obituary, “an obit” as we called them.

This was 1978 and I can’t recall the name of the deceased, although my recollection is that it was a prominent businessman who did a lot for the community.

Back in those days the newspaper wrote the obits. Today funeral homes supply the information about the dearly departed. This is a better system.

Anyway, back then I wrote many obits, as did Craig Brandon who sat at the desk next to mine in the city room. Craig didn’t like writing obits as much as I did. He wanted to write hard news, front page stuff.

(In case Craig Brandon’s name rings a bell, he would later write a book about the Chester Gillette murder of Grace Brown, “Murder in the Adirondacks.”)

I enjoyed obits because it was a chance to sum up someone’s life, give them a sendoff, a salute to the dead, and to tell readers what subject of the obit had accomplished in their more active days.

So many times I heard people say, “I had no idea he (or she) did all that, an amazing life.” 

Obits are on my mind because of the latest book I am reading, “Getting Off at Elysian Fields,” subtitled “Obituaries from the New Orleans Time-Picayune,” by John Pope.

This book is number nine in my quest to read a book a week in 2022. Obviously I’m behind. I got stuck on “Day of Confession,” a thriller that didn’t thrill me and it took much more than a week to finish.

Back to “Getting Off at Elysian Fields.” Why would someone from Central New York want to read about dead people from New Orleans?

Three reasons. One, New Orleans is a fascinating place populated by interesting people. 

Two, in New Orleans funerals and death are treated differently than in other parts of the country. As a bumper stick puts it: “New Orleans - Where We Put The Fun In Funerals.” 

Once I was invited to walk in a jazz funeral for Tuba Skinny, a fat and famous musician. Someone walking near me was pulling a cooler on wheels. “Why aren’t you drinking?” he said.

“I don’t have anything to drink,” I said. 

He opened his cooler and tossed me a Pabst Blue Ribbon

“You do now.”

Reason three, good writing is good writing and can make just about any topic interesting. John Pope is a good writer.

One of the chapters in his book starts like this: “Ruthie the Duck Girl, a French Quarter eccentric who zoomed from bar to bar on roller skates. sometimes wearing a ratty fur coat and long skirts and trailed by a duck or two, died Sept. 6 at Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge. She was 74.”

How do you not go on to read an obit that starts like that?

When I met Ruthie about 20 years ago in the Pontabella Cafe, a bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, she already looked 74. Ruthie had given up on real ducks and was pulling a toy duck. She was wearing a wedding dress.

“Buy me a drink,” Ruthie ordered, and so I did. She drank it fast and was gone. She did say “thank you.”

Ruthie, so the story goes, whose real name was Ruth Moulon, had been engaged to a sailor but never made it to the altar. “I got engaged,” she was quoted as saying, “that was enough.” 

In Pope’s book, a newspaper photographer who took Ruthie’s picture on many occasions once said: “She’s not out of touch with reality; she’s just not interested.”

Back I go now to “Getting Off at Elysian Fields. I need to get back on schedule. 

One final note. In Greek mythology Elysian Fields are the land of the dead, a place where heroes are sent for eternity. There actually is a street in New Orleans called Elysian Fields, but no cemetery by that name that I know. 

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