Most obituaries are about as warm as a cover letter. Maybe every obit-writer feels she has to be sober and staid out of respect for the dead, but the result is that a complex life of loving, striving, petty thieving, and instagramming is reduced to a bland list.
Not in the case of Harry Weathersby Stamps.
Harry’s obituary in the Biloxi Sun-Herald is a remarkably tongue-in-cheek piece of writing that undoes the genre. In capturing the qualities that made Harry precisely this Harry and no other, it snapshots a gentleman both familiar and unusual—and by all accounts well worth knowing. His character is so tangible that it’s hard to believe we didn’t know him, that he didn’t write this himself, and that he’s gone.
Harry is so charmingly portrayed that writers, in particular, should look again: there’s a wealth to be learned from this essay. Here are five tips and tricks for writers courtesy of the world’s best obituary:
1. Question tradition.
We know where the man sourced his mayo, but how did Harry die? Harry’s obituary doesn’t mention that fact, because it does not matter relative to the details of his life. Don’t blindly follow convention—question every writerly tradition, and jettison what doesn’t work.
2. Report the feelings, not just the facts.
Forget what Harry “did”—profession here is an afterthought. It’s what he DID—courting clever dames, splurging for a view of the creek—that matters. Emotional information always trumps facts, because as high-drama girlfriends though the ages have argued, what we feel about what happens is at least as important as the events that prompted those feelings.
3. Think about food.
Harry’s favorite foods (BLTs, for example) make for some of the most vivid passages of this obit. Don’t neglect a character’s alimentary habits—food choices are a simple way to make rich statements about his/her character (and you’ll be joining a proud tradition of literary recipe-writing).
4. Let the details tell the story.
There’s endless meaning in small specifics. A trademark style or recipe is only as good as its components, and if Harry felt strongly about each ingredient in his sandwich and the source of his finest sweatwear, dammit, so too must we. Details let us speculate about unmentioned qualities—like a character’s values, say.
5. Subvert the character. Subvert the genre.
We think we know about older men, or southern men, or university deans, or whatever other classifying groups we instinctively try to shove people into. And we know that obituaries are supposed to give a tidy, net social worth-type assessment. But Harry’s obituary is having none of it: instead, it breaks down all classifications, not least by being genuinely funny (not sad-funny, which is categorically worse than sad). Power lies in catching the reader off guard: that’s when the slivers of the genuine wiggle in.