It’s 11:00 p.m. in the newsroom of the regional newspaper where I work. I’ve been here since 5:00, collecting death notices, faxed, phoned, and e-mailed in, mainly from funeral homes, and entering them into the ancient computer system. The next day’s paper was put to bed at 9:00, but I’m still awake, updating service notices and entering tomorrow’s batch of obits.
The police scanner squeals and spits out a report of gunshots fired in the vicinity of Third Avenue—only a couple blocks away from our building. The late-shift newswriter—a dirty-blond twentysomething named Sam—moseys up to the main desk—my desk—where the scanner sits three feet away.
“What was that report?” he asks.
“Gunshots, Third Avenue,” I tell him.
Even close to midnight, the newsroom is cacophonous. Someone has turned the police scanner all the way up because someone has turned the two televisions all the way up. Phones ring incessantly. The calls bounce from the empty desks of one editor to another until they finally forward through Sam’s cell phone, which rings to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
“You’d probably be able to hear the scanner if you put your phone on vibrate,” I yell at him over the top of it all.
“Michael’s the only thing that keeps me on point this late,” he says. “Michael and cigarettes. Let’s go.”
I follow Sam out of the newsroom and down the stairwell to the loading dock. Though the butts have all been swept up, the concrete structure still reeks of them. I can’t imagine what the newsroom must have smelled like in the ’70s.
“Anything tonight?” Sam asks and passes me a Marlboro Light.
I take a drag of my cigarette and say, “Dale Irwin, 36, originally of Mount Vernon, jumped to his death from a hot air balloon outside of Denver.”
“Wow, that’s a good one. That might be the best one yet.”
We are collecting the best ways to die. That sounds cynical, but it doesn’t feel that way. No one wants to rot away from cancer or keel over from heart failure. Those benign-sounding sisters, brief illness and long illness, are the most perverse because of what they aren’t saying, especially in this conservative corner of the Midwest. Drug addiction, mental illness, AIDS. We respect the death notices that tell the truth, even if we don’t usually publish them.
People pay a lot of money to keep the ugliness and humiliation—that is, the truth—of death out of the notices they send us. “Died of colon cancer,” for example, might be replaced with some variant of “has joined the angels to sing in Heaven’s choir.”
“Is it going in the paper?” Sam asks.
“No. The family’s paying for it, so there’s no C.O.D.”
“It’s just for us, then.”
“Just for us.”
Carl is the director of a funeral home in a small town. It’s a farming community, deep in corn country, and bears the scars of a typical Midwestern town emptied out by agribusiness and the agricultural disinterest of the younger generation. The nearly deserted main street is anchored by the café on one end and the funeral home on the other.
The first time Carl called in a services-pending notice, he told me I must be a brunette. I was so surprised I forgot to ask him the age of the deceased and had to call back a few minutes later.
“What do you need, doll? I’m busy,” he said, a little sharp. I remembered my question, and he answered “73” and promptly hung up on me.
If the idea of buying a car from a guy in a loud suit with wandering eyes gives you the creeps, imagine buying a coffin from one. “Hey, hon,” Carl oozes when I pick up the phone. “Got one down from Keokuk. Donald Schumacher. That’s S-C-H-U-M-A-C-H-E-R.”
“Cause of death?” I ask.
There is a pause I’ve come to expect, a withholding, then a suggestion, the same every time: “Hey, maybe I’ll come down there so we can meet face to face finally.”
I sigh and ask for the C.O.D. again.
“Long illness, hon,” he says, showing no signs of deflation. “See you later.”
Carl tends to misspell the names of the dead and their survivors. This seems like it would be a priority for writing obituaries, but it’s not. And it’s not just Carl. Most of the obituaries and notices I receive from funeral homes have glaring errors in them. I almost always have to call a funeral home back to ask which of the four spellings of the deceased’s first name is the correct one.
The idea of Carl communicating with my grieving family—of potentially being alone with my dead, naked body—is unsettling. I make up my mind: As soon as I can, I’ll make my own funeral arrangements. Until then, I decide to hedge against the Carl factor as much as possible and write my own obituary.
The farmed plots of Iowa are possibly the most unthreatening topographies in the world. The winters are frequently arctic, but we have no forests in which to get lost. We have no mountains to fall off of. The homicides are infrequent and isolated—usually family related. Most people in Iowa die of old age, natural causes. The general exception to this is that everyone knows at least one person who has been killed in a brutal farm machinery accident.
I get the call early in my shift on Thursday, around 5:00 p.m. “This is Reverend David Carter,” says the voice on the line. “I’m the director of Two Rivers School in Quasqueton.” Two little filaments blink inside my head, meet. “You’re Sam’s dad,” I say. “I think he’s on a story right now.”
“Yes,” says the Reverend. “I need to speak to the obituaries desk.”
“That’s me,” I say, embarrassed at my unwarranted familiarity with this man.
“I’m calling on a death notice. For our neighbor, Marion Wentz. She died today. Her tractor flipped on her.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say and take all the relevant information.
I don’t put the notice in the news basket. I wait until Sam gets back from his story and beckons me to the loading dock for a cigarette. He tells me his neighbor has died—his father had reached him on his cell phone. I am relieved not to have to give him this information, and we share a quiet smoke.
Here are the things I know about Marvin Pella: He rebuilt vintage speedboats by hand with his dad and used to race them up and down the river after his dad died and he was alone. Marvin mowed the grass every day if it wasn’t covered in rain or snow. He was missing part of his index finger on his right hand. I noticed it because he waved to every car that passed on their unpaved country road, the farmer’s wave, around before the peace sign. Seen from the wrong angle, it would sometimes look like he was flipping me the bird. He wore overalls and a red mesh cap. He had never married. He lived on the Iowa River longer than anyone else in our neighborhood.
I’d always worried that I would someday recognize the name on a notice, so this feels expected. It’s almost a relief that it’s not someone I know better, but it’s something else too. For just a little while, it is my secret.
I walk back into the office and enter Marvin’s notice. It is still my secret until the paper goes out, but I don’t feel like keeping it anymore so I call my mom and tell her, and the news begins a steady march down the street until it fades away in the distance.
If a newspaper even staffs an obit writer, it’s only because the obituaries are the most profitable section. Therefore, the work cannot be daring. It is more like data entry than writing. If the obituary is a free notice, it contains certain information. All other information included is billed by the word. And if a family pays for an obituary, the obituary writer is just a conduit. Being an obit writer at a small, local newspaper is the journalistic equivalent of starting in the mailroom, complete with tiny humiliations and tiny paychecks.
The narrative arcs of paid obituaries are more or less the same. Went to high school, got married, had kids, had a hobby or a pet, a favorite phrase, went to war, work, church. The family members who write these obits have internalized the genre. In death all lives look alike.
My mother asks me to go with her to buy her burial plot at Oakland, an old and beautiful cemetery in Iowa City that is supposedly haunted. She’s excited, as if she’s picking out a new car.
“It’s creeping me out how happy you are about this,” I say, after she finds a place—a drawer, actually—in an open-air mausoleum underneath a huge oak tree. The legendary Black Angel statue is nearby. Kiss a virgin underneath its open wings at midnight and it will turn white again, they say. The fact that it’s still black is supposed to be a testament to the indecency of liberal Iowa City.
“Well, now I know where I’ll be,” Mom says.
“Why here?” I ask. “Why not in Traer, with Grandma?”
“I want to be able to hang out with old friends and neighbors when we’re all dead together,” she says.
“Sounds like a party,” I say. We walk toward the office and I notice for the first time that she’s maybe not as tall as she once was, that her shoulders are slightly uneven. We speculate about what kinds of martinis would be appropriate for such an event. Washington Apple, we decide, since they’re too strong for the living, and something soft and cloudlike, Frangelico maybe, a wisp on the tongue, like melted cotton candy—there, then gone.
Excerpted from The Iowa Review(Fall 2010), a journal that for 41 years has pursued a mission of “nudging along American literature, being local but not provincial, experimental but not without respect for literary traditions.” www.iowareview.org
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.