Why Obituaries?

My focus on obituaries as the basis of a website that aims to remember LGBTQ Michiganders might seem a bit macabre.  This is certainly not the intention.  While death and loss may be one undeniable undertone, the growing popularity of sites such as legacy.com and tributes.com suggests a strong interest in the obituary as a means of remembrance.

I’m not sure if I can fully explain, or even if I fully understand, why I have found obituaries captivating.  Nonetheless, they have long attracted me as a reader, as a writer, and for their historical value.

I have long been drawn to obits as a reader.

Celebrity obituaries, in particular, have grabbed my attention from a young age.  For years, I have had regular debates with friends about which celeb would get an obit on the front page of the New York Times.  Author Maurice Sendak did, below the fold; activist Barbara Gittings did not, delegated to page B-8 and nearly a month late.

As the new documentary film Obit shows, Times writer Margalit Fox has shown a particular penchant for capturing interesting and compelling stories in her obituaries, reminding us of people whose unique impact on the culture make for enticing reading.

Then there are the personal connections.  In the days of print media, death notices for family and friends became keepsakes.  Sometimes, as with Flint hairdresser Brian McKinney, a friend of my neighbor “Miss Bobbi,” seeing an obit was how I “got the news.”

Such jolts of news are now too often experienced via social media. This past month, the death of Detroit area activist Peter Cooper sent shock waves across my Facebook feed.  Last summer, I learned that Jeffrey Montgomery died from a post Sean Kosofsky made to Facebook.  Facebook pages in themselves have become sites of memorial where memories, especially queer memories that might otherwise be lost, can be shared.

I have long been dedicated to obits as a writer.

I recall composing the Flint Journal death notice for my grandfather with my mom and aunts on Halloween night 1990, hours after he’d passed away.  My grandma had insisted we still hand out candy, so every few minutes we were interrupted by the joyous hollers of trick-or-treaters at the front door.  My grandpa would have loved that.

The first queer obit I ever wrote was for Bramwell “ChiChi” Franklin, fey entertainer extraordinaire at gay bars in Detroit from the late 1940s through the 1970s.  The challenge of trying to encapsulate a life in a short article helped me hone my writing and refine my eye for detail.  In the two decades since I left the employ of Between The Lines, I have as often as possible contributed obits when local and expat LGBTQ folk have passed away.  I feel a particular responsibility that members of our community get their due.

I have long prized obits for their historical value.

I initially realized this due to something called The New York Times Biographical Service, a monthly compilation and useful reference tool of person-centered articles appearing in the Times.  Another of my many jobs at the Flint Public Library involved placing red asterisks in its index next to names of people who had died.  At the time, the last surviving officials from Franklin Roosevelt’s administration were dying, so from that rather mindless task I gained a distinctive grasp of the New Deal and all its alphabet agencies.

As nuggets of queer memory, they provide an evocative lens for understanding LGBTQ history.  Over time they have been markers of acknowledgment or erasure.  Obits for victims of the Orlando mass shootings carry an immediacy and different resonance than obits for Walt Whitman or Detroit’s Prophet Jones.

Obituaries often proved to be useful sources of information for my dissertation on postwar lesbian and gay life and politics in Metro Detroit, whether in an LGBTQ publication or a mainstream daily.  They provided details of employment, confirmation of military service, or hints of long-term same-sex relationships.

And they could evince multiple layers of stigma.  For instance, obits in gay publications for Sam “Bookie” Stewart, celebrated straight manager and owner of gay bars from the 1940s to the 1980s, never mentioned he was Jewish.  His obit in the Detroit Jewish News never mentioned he operated gay bars.

Why obits?  Simply because they are worthy of our attention.

Tim Retzloff

One thought on “Why Obituaries?”

  1. Many people say of the dead, RIP, Rest In Peace. By custom Jewish people say “may their memory be a blessing,” in Hebrew z’l for “zichronam l’vonav.” Why obits? To preserve the memory and to give the lives of the dead a shape to accompany our own loss as we live on.

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