Earlier this year, our editorial columnist (and former reporter) Jim Holtz took a break from writing to concentrate on his health, and his family.
In the meantime, we featured the conversational writing of Boundary Creek Times reporter Pat Kelly, and the historical anecdotes of Grand Forks native Milton Orris. Eventually, reporter Craig Lindsay and I began to each write a column.
Jim always made it seem so easy, to write a column each week that was interesting, informative and engaged our readers. Craig and I are writing only every second week—and I don’t know about Craig, but I’m not finding it near as easy as Jim made it look.
As I write, I try to think of what Jim might write about, what Jim would think of my ideas.
One idea I had, and wrote about a month or so ago, was about obituaries. Jim was not well, and I’m sure he didn’t read it, but for personal reasons he was thinking of obituaries as well.
In his own words:
We place importance on a person’s last words, on final statements, on epitaphs carved on tombstones.
A person may speak millions and millions of words in his or her lifetime, but it is the last few words that we want to hear. For many, the last words are written about them in an obituary.
The obituary writer is supposed to summarize the deceased person’s life. That isn’t easy. What should be included? What left out? And of course the writer always wants to convey to the reader the kind of person the deceased really was; the limited space makes that difficult.
There isn’t room to tell the stories of specific kindness and generosity, of hard work and ambition, of differences made in the lives of others.
No, the incidents that define a person are too lengthy to be included in an obituary. Instead the writer makes statements like: “She was kind hearted,” or “He was a devoted father,” or “He always stood up for what he believed in.”
Maybe it is for the best that obituaries are short and to the point. They are after all only a sort of exclamation point placed at the end of a person’s life. “Take note for the last time,” they say; “he/she did live, did laugh, did suffer, did make a difference.”
Sometimes a person’s last words tell more about the person than his/her obituary.
My father’s good friend Al was a perfect example. He was a serious and successful man who took on many responsibilities with his church, the Rotarians, the Elks Club and many other volunteer organizations. His obituary listed all of that, of course, but never mentioned the aspects of his personality that endeared him to my father.
The day he died of cancer, my father visited him in the hospital where he lay, pale and thin and shot full of morphine. Just before my dad left, Al motioned to him to bend down so he could tell him something. When my dad leaned over close enough, Al smiled and whispered, “It must have been a bad bowl of chilli.”
That’s not a bad exit line. I am tempted to use it myself, but my fabulous and amazing wife, Judy, makes all our chilli and so I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate it. And really, in the grand scheme of things, a more minimalist approach to a final statement is probably as fitting as any:
In memory of
James R. Holtz
May 2, 1946 – July 18, 2015
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