Some families shooting for laughs in obituaries
LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Helen Sagerer used to tell her children that when she died, she wanted her obituary to be short and to the point.
"Just put 'Helen Sagerer, Dead,' " she would say, laughing impishly at her own joke.
"She thought it was hysterically funny," said Johanna Davis, of West Lampeter Township, one of Sagerer's three daughters.
When Sagerer died Feb. 11, her daughters wanted to honor her wish, so they made sure the headline on her obituary was just as she wanted it to be. But they couldn't bring themselves to stop there. More needed to be written, they agreed, about their hilarious, loving, straight-talking, one-of-a-kind mother.
The obituary ended up being roughly 330 words longer than the three words their mother had wanted.
But had they gone with just "Helen Sagerer, Dead," Davis joked that her phone would have been ringing off the hook with relatives wanting to know just how cheap she and her sisters were.
In decades past, obituaries used to be penned by reporters in newsrooms, who generally didn't know their subjects. Unless the deceased was one of the great and the good, an obit tended to be a succinct, just-the-facts rendering of a person's existence.
When newspapers began charging for obituaries, some journalists disapproved. In a 1999 article titled "The Death of the Free Obit" in American Journalism Review, one journalism school dean called newspapers "ghouls" for requiring payment for obits.
At Lancaster Newspapers, responsibility for handling obituaries was transferred from the editorial department to the classified advertising department in September 2004. Obituaries are billed by the inch, with a minimum charge of $88.55.
"Deaths Reported" listings, which include just the basic details, are free.
Kathleen Ryan, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, said the costs of paid obituaries can be prohibitive for some families, especially in big cities, where obituaries tend to be particularly pricey.
Some funeral directors now post obituaries on their own websites, circumventing the newspapers, she said.
But obituary pages in this newspaper — and on its website, LancasterOnline.com — still are filled with tributes to departed loved ones.
Many of the obits are written by funeral directors; some are penned by family members, and some are self-authored.
Because families now have a greater part in the writing, the obits have become more interesting and more personal, said Alice Hess, who, along with Diana Rymar, coordinates obituaries at Lancaster Newspapers.
Not everything goes: Recently one woman's children, following her wishes, had sought to write that she'd been "preceded in death by her unfaithful husband." That line was nixed, Hess said, as the not-so-dearly-departed husband "wasn't here to defend himself."
But other details that wouldn't have been included in obits past — beloved pets, hashtags, favorite poems, strange and amusing nicknames ("Roadkill Mama," for instance) — now are included.
Those details serve to color in the lines of lives described in black and white.
"Everyone leads an interesting life in one way or another," said John Derr, vice president of sales and marketing at Lancaster Newspapers. "For most people their obit is the only thing most of the world will know of them. They should be personal and full of the essence of the individual."
Patti Anewalt, director of Hospice & Community Care's Pathways Center for Grief & Loss, said that in the last 10 years or so, "as a society, we've come to see the value of commemoration."
People post memorials to loved ones on Facebook, and assemble collages and videos for funerals (or "celebrations of life," as many now prefer).
This generation of mourners, Anewalt said, is "a lot more honest, a lot more open."
The bereaved "want people to know who their loved ones were," she said.
Sometimes, today's obituary writers experiment with structure: One recent obituary was in the form of a party invitation.
Sometimes, Hess said, "It's more the photos that are meaningful or interesting."
In January, for instance, the obituary of Esther Ann "Zan" Reeser was accompanied by a photo showing the deceased as a young woman in a skirted baseball uniform. She had played for the Springfield Sallies, in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, during World War II.
Occasionally, an obituary, like that of Helen Sagerer, simply makes readers laugh.
FAREWELL TO 'JEZEBEL'
Helen A. Sagerer
Yep, that's what she wanted written in the paper. Helen, also known as Mom, Gramma, Mommom and, in her later years, our personal favorite "Jezebel," wanted her friends, caregivers and family to smile one more time!
So began Helen Sagerer's obituary.
"I wasn't sure the paper would run it," said Annie Schickel, of Willow Street.
Schickel, Sagerer's middle daughter, composes wry copy for a line of greeting cards. So the task of writing her mother's obituary fell to her.
She wrote a first draft, which got a lukewarm reaction from her sister Johanna.
"It was just a normal obituary," Schickel said.
Johanna Davis told her: "Just write what you know she wants."
And so she did, laughing as she pictured her mother doing everything her mother did.
"Throughout her life," Schickel wrote, "she danced the jitterbug, made eyes at the men for free samples at the candy factory, twisted pretzels, worked at Hubley, tended bar, loved the beach, worshipped the sun, shopped too much and spoke her mind but mostly she made us laugh!"
Her mother, she wrote, had requested that there be no formal service, only a private interment, and no flowers, "because in a week they'll be dead."
"It was just so much my mom," Johanna Davis said of the obituary.
"It absolutely was her," agreed Linda Newsome, of Quarryville, the eldest of Sagerer's three daughters.
Her mother, Newsome said, "didn't pull any punches."
Schickel said her mother "didn't like fresh flowers, ever, ever. . She liked her silk flowers." And she was "adamant" about not wanting a funeral service, "because if people couldn't come see her when she was alive, to hell with them when she's dead."
Schickel said her kids have told her "there were not all wonderful comments" in response to the obituary, "but I just kind of feel, so what? We know what our mother was like. I just wanted to make her smile one more time."
One commenter apparently said the tongue-in-cheek tone of the obituary was "a shame for the people who wanted to cut it out and save it," Schickel said. "I can just hear my mother saying, 'What the hell are you cutting out an obituary and saving it for anyway?' "
The daughters describe a mother who was strong, independent, caring and deeply in love with her husband of 41 years, John J. Sagerer. The couple met in 1958 in a "chance encounter," as Schickel wrote in the obituary.
John Sagerer was actually with a date, on a group outing, when he met Helen, and he invited her to come along ("which I'm sure the date probably didn't appreciate," Johanna Davis laughed).
It was love at first sight; the couple married "after 10 days of courtship," Schickel wrote.
"When they walked into a room, you could see the love between them," Linda Newsome said.
After John Sagerer died in 1999, Helen Sagerer had no interest in marrying again. Davis said her mother would say, "I would always be comparing."
She was close to her grandchildren. When she was still in her own home, Davis' son, Bay, would spend nights there, so she wouldn't be alone.
"I felt like it was a way maybe that I could give back to her," said Bay, noting that his grandmother did so much for him.
She played catch with him until she had her first stroke. She made him a cake every week. When they went to horse races together, she would split her winnings with him.
"She was probably the funniest person I ever met," Bay, who's 18, said.
"Her humor was so funny that the kids wanted to be around her," Johanna Davis said, noting, "You could be having a bad day, and she would turn it around. Something would be funny."
Newsome recalled being summoned by the nursing home, toward the end of her mother's life, because her mother had fallen ill. "She was so sick," Newsome said. "I thought, 'Oh my land, she looks awful.' "
Her mother was taken to the hospital by ambulance. When Newsome met her at the hospital, "There she was, sitting up, joking and laughing and talking to this really handsome orderly. . She said, 'I think he charged my battery.' "
In 2000, Johanna Davis said, her mother joined her family on a trip to Florida, and offered to take Bay swimming for the afternoon.
"There she is, at the pool, sitting in her bra and her shorts. This is a motel pool, so I'm horrified. . She said, 'Really, this is just like the top of a bathing suit.'
"Of course, she had the whole pool to herself. Well, naturally."
It was fitting that Helen Sagerer's obituary, like the woman herself, left people laughing.
"She was just a really fun, fun person," Davis said. "I think that she always would try to find the bright side."
Schickel said writing the obituary "was almost a little scary." She worried that people were "going to look at it and be mortified."
But there's nothing inappropriate about using humor as a coping mechanism to get through bereavement, said Anewalt, of the Pathways Center for Grief & Loss, who noted, "Humor and sadness are so closely entwined."
And laughter, she said, really can help people through the stress brought on by a loved one's death.
"It would be nice if more people had fun with the obits and let the loved one's personality come through," Derr, of Lancaster Newspapers, said.
Newsome said her mother figured that, "if you gotta go, you might as well make it fun. She'd say life's too short not to laugh, and you might as well laugh, even when you die."
Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era ,http://lancasteronline.com