The man who writes obituaries, the people who hire him, and what we learn from our last words
Photography by Logan Cyrus
Mr. Happy had terminal brain cancer.
First it had been in his lungs, but it didn’t stay put, and in January of last year, his doctor told him, David Cribbs, Mr. Happy, that the tumors were everywhere. His doctor couldn’t say for sure how long he had, maybe only months, maybe only weeks, but he did tell him to do what he needed to do before he died. So Cribbs readied his will. He talked to his minister. He picked the hymns for his service. And he called Ken Garfield.
David Cribbs and his wife, Barbara, became best friends when they were 14, and they married eight years later.
Garfield, 61, a Jewish man who works at a Christian church, is a former religion editor for The Charlotte Observer. That’s where he started writing obituaries. Now he works full time as the communications director at the 5,000-plus-member Myers Park United Methodist on Queens Road, but he still writes obits. People hire him. They hire him to write the words that will run in the back of the local section of the local newspaper. Sometimes he does the reporting immediately after the death, and sometimes he does it before, even well before. Depends on what people want.
For Cribbs, who wanted to be interviewed for his own obit, Garfield wrote about his upbringing in Florida, his marriage to his high school sweetheart, his work in finance, his move to Charlotte, the importance of his faith, the joy he got from his three children, and then their children, too, his morning laps in the pool at the Y, his ever-optimistic disposition for which he earned his nickname.
What Garfield didn’t write were the two things he couldn’t until he could, the two things he had to leave blank in his initial draft—the date of Mr. Happy’s death, and his age. But he finished what he could finish, Garfield did, and he closed the document on his computer, and he waited.
This, say those who have made it their business to know, is a great time for obituaries.
“The art of the obituary is now enjoying a renaissance of sorts,” Carolyn Milford Gilbert, the founder of the International Association of Obituarists, writes in her foreword to Life on the Death Beat, published in 2005.
The former religion editor at The Charlotte Observer, Ken Garfield now writes obituaries for people who want to have a say in what appears in print after they die.
“In one generation, a boring, moldy old form has sprung to life,” Marilyn Johnson writes in her 2006 book, The Dead Beat. “Historians tell us we are living in the Golden Age of the Obituary.”
There’s not only one kind of obit. There are paid death notices, the most common kind, which generally are formulaic and part of the package offered by a funeral home—a brief, bullet-point biography, printed for a fee on the designated page or pages of a paper or papers of choice. They’re essentially classified ads. And then there are feature obits, or literary obits, crafted by professional reporters, writers—journalists—and they look at a life as far more than a list of places been, jobs had, loved ones left behind. Because what life is only that?
What Garfield does is sort of a combination of the two. He reports and writes feature obits. They run in the paper like paid death notices. He doesn’t advertise. Most people come to him due to word of mouth. Sometimes he speaks at churches and retirement centers—his spiel, he says, is basically this: “How do you want to be remembered?” He also has a simple, one-page flyer he gives to potential … subjects? Clients? Customers? “More than a collection of dates and facts,” the flyer reads, “an obituary should be as rich as the life lived.” His regular rate is $300, because his time and expertise is “worth something,” he believes, but he’s flexible.
Why does he do this?
Fear is one reason.
“Death scares me,” Garfield, who has two married children and now a new grandchild, tells me over a recent lunch at Providence Road Sundries. “When I think about it, personally, I’m very uncertain about what comes next.”
Curiosity is another.
“I’ve always been interested in how people deal with loss,” he says.
Perhaps this, though, is a third reason, and the most important: Garfield is, well, how to say this? It’s not that he’s simple or boring. It’s just that he’s not flashy or loud. He dresses unremarkably. He keeps his hair sensibly cut. He works at the church, and for exercise, he speed-walks and plays slow-pitch softball, and then he goes home and spends time with his family. “I’m not terribly social, not the life of the party,” he says. “I pretty much care about two things in life, especially the older I get: family and telling stories.” The obits in, say, The New York Times, place a person’s bright-lights achievements in between the first two commas. That’s fine, but those are not the obits Garfield likes to write the most. “My kind of go-to obit is a woman who was a homemaker her whole life,” he explains. “Every life is rich. Every life is rare. Even the simplest life has beauty and grace.
“I want to be a good steward,” he says.
Since starting this side business a little more than a year ago, Garfield has written about nurses and executives, homemakers and pipe installers, recovered alcoholics, people who take cruises to Bora Bora and like pineapples on their pizza.
And Mr. Happy.
Cribbs and his wife, Barbara, became best friends when they were 14, beginning a half-century of love, long enough to have three children, long enough to see their children marry and have children of their own, long enough to bury their own parents.
Garfield, who has two married children and a new grandchild, says that one of the reasons he writes obituaries is that “death scares me.”
“I remember when my father died, and then when my mother died, none of us—I have two sisters—none of us were prepared for what comes next,” David Cribbs told me on the phone last December, his short-term memory faltering, his long-term memory just fine.
“Both my parents, I was no stranger to that, and while their obituaries were okay, they were just so generic,” Barbara Cribbs said. “I thought, you know, there’s got to be a better way.”
Shortly after the last, dire diagnosis, when the doctor said he couldn’t be cured and told him to get his “stuff in line,” David and his wife invited Garfield to their house. They’d known him since he started working as the communications director at their church, and they remembered his work from his days as a newspaper writer. They felt that they knew him.
They sat in the living room. Ken had a pen and a legal pad.
“There’s very little I wouldn’t tell him,” David said.
“We had a great conversation,” Barbara said. “We were telling stories, and he asked wonderful questions.”
I asked David Cribbs if there was anything about the reporting process, if that’s even the most appropriate way to put it, that was unsettling. Or strange. Or fatalistic. I struggled for the word.
Here’s the one he used.
“You don’t know how you’re supposed to feel, how you’re supposed to act,” he said, but he was glad to have the chance for input when it came to his obit. To have a say.
“It was very comforting,” he said, “to get that out of the way.”
We do death wrong.
Maybe that’s too strong. There’s no one right way. And death isn’t something people get to practice. It’s simultaneously universal and individual, and it’s a just-once deal. But I started thinking about this while reading Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, by Bernd Heinrich, a couple of years ago
In the entirety of the natural world, death, the end of one life, helps—enables—the continuation of so many others. It is that way with all animals except us. We waste our bodies.
“Here is a typical modern commercial burial: It starts with the naked body lying on a steel table, where the embalmer drains the blood and injects the body with a very toxic chemical—formaldehyde—that prevents decay,” Heinrich points out in his book. “It is then placed in a metal casket and sealed so that no formaldehyde can leak out, as though it were hazardous waste at a landfill. Then ‘it’ is added to millions of others, eating up more space every year—space that is kept largely free of flowering plants but instead is a monoculture of cropped grass, sometimes with cut flowers brought in that have been grown in a greenhouse. In the United States alone, the burials in our 22,500 active cemeteries annually eat up 30 million board feet of hardwood lumber, more than 100,000 tons of steel, 1,600 tons of reinforced concrete, and nearly 1 million gallons of embalming fluid.”
Cremation is not much better. The burning spews chemicals into the air. The amount of fossil fuel used to cremate corpses every year in North America, according to Heinrich, could send a car to the moon and back more than 80 times.
“We deny that we are animals and part of the wheel of life, part of the food chain,” Heinrich writes.
“... We do not come from dust, nor do we return to dust. We come from life, and we are the conduit into other life.”
Is this, maybe, an explanation for the recent rise in the popularity of obits? Technology offers the illusion of unprecedented connectivity. In reality, though, perhaps we sense a profound disconnect between how we live and the intrinsic rhythms of existence. And yet in an obit, or at least in a good one, we find a reminder, and it is reassuring: In death, there is life.
“The better the obit,” says Marilyn Johnson, the author of The Dead Beat, “the closer it approaches re-creation.”
Jim Sheeler is one of the best obit writers in the country and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He’s now a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “One of the reasons I think people read obituaries is to learn something from this life that maybe we can add to our own,” Sheeler says. “Something that stays for you. It’s a chance for them to still teach you.”
“They are about life,” says Andy Meacham, who writes obits for the Tampa Bay Times and is the president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers.
“The death is just the occasion to write about the life.”
Garfield stresses that, as well.
“I tell them: We’re not talking about your death; we’re talking about your life,” he says. “And I like the fact that you know that this is the article someone would cut out to save forever.”
He considers obits the most important news in the paper.
“What could be more significant,” he asks, “than losing a neighbor, or someone from church, or someone you did business with 10 years ago? What could be more newsworthy?”
Read them, the obits, day after day, year after year, and what starts to show is the community, a reminder of the commonality rather than the polarity, what is shared instead of what is not. What starts to show is the people of a place, and how they make it, all of them, what it is. What starts to show, coursing through the pages about death, is life.
The deadline is always the same.
This past spring, once he could, Garfield finished the obit for Cribbs. He filled in the date, April 17, 2014, and he filled in the age. Mr. Happy was 68.
“David Cribbs’ wife called him Mr. Happy, a term of endearment that captured his spirit until the day he died, at home, surrounded by loved ones,” the obit began.
Garfield made sure to include the people Cribbs wished to thank. Cribbs, he wrote, “also said he couldn’t leave out the buddies he swam with for the past decade, and most recently at the Harris Y. It was there they’d meet at 5 a.m. for exercise and fellowship. And, as the illness spread, they’d swim a little closer behind their friend, just in case.”
One of those little lessons ...
… and then another …
“There he was,” Garfield wrote, “at church one recent Sunday—in a wheelchair and unable to walk, a ball cap covering his spreading baldness—a half-dozen friends were eager to know how he was doing. He just smiled and told them he was ‘Okay.’”
Barbara, Mr. Happy’s partner for all but 22 of his years, said he died with a smile on his face.
Michael Kruse, a graduate of Davidson College, is an award-winning staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times. Reach him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.