Jane Margaret Laight
2008-08-23 21:41:18 UTC
thought this might provide some answers for the folks who hang around
alt.obituaries. I've been rather busy lately so I haven't really been
contibuting, but I thought that this would be of interest. See you all
John Bogert: Death may not be proud, but it is honest
Article Launched: 08/18/2008 09:17:11 PM PDT
As obituaries go, this one from the Vallejo Times-Herald sets a
standard for brutal honesty.
"Dolores Aguilar, born in 1929 in New Mexico, left us on Aug. 7, 2008.
Dolores had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely
shared a kind word or deed in her life. I speak for the majority of
her family when I say her presence will not be missed by many, very
few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her
"Her family will remember Dolores and amongst ourselves we will
remember her in our own way, which were mostly sad and troubling times
throughout the years. We may have some fond memories of her and
perhaps we will think of those times, too. But I truly believe at the
end of the day all of us will really only miss what we never had, a
good and kind mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I hope she is
finally at peace with herself. As for the rest of us left behind, I
hope this is the beginning of a time of healing and learning to be a
"There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family
she spent a lifetime tearing apart. We cannot come together in the end
to see to it that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren can say
their goodbyes. So I say here for all of us, goodbye Mom."
This was strange enough to make me check Snopes.com, a dispeller of e-
myth, before calling the Vallejo Times-Herald and speaking to Editor
Ted Vollmer, who said that the paid obit that ran in his paper Friday
and Saturday was indeed real.
"We even requested a copy of the death certificate, something we
rarely do, to make sure that it wasn't a scam," said Vollmer, who then
gave me the phone number of Virginia Brown, a Seattle resident and the
woman who wrote the obituary that is now rocketing around cyberspace.
I caught up with Brown, one of Aguilar's eight children, at work on
"I wanted to do the right thing, the honest thing," said the 54-year-
old mother of two. "When she died a co-worker gave me a copy of an
obituary she wrote for her father as a kind of writing guide. What
struck me was how my mother was none of the things I was reading. She
was never there for us, she was never good and she left no legacy. So
how could I say any of the usual things about her?"
What you see above is a distillation of eight first-draft pages
crammed with the sad story of a woman who, Brown said, probably
suffered from never-diagnosed mental disorders that caused her to keep
her children unfed, poorly clothed and completely terrorized.
"She was a chameleon. She could make outsiders see her in any way that
she wanted while behind closed doors she would beat at least one of us
every day," Brown said of her San Francisco childhood. "She left all
of us struggling. We just never learned how to cope with life. Our
father, meanwhile, was a good man. My only hope for him was that he
would outlive her just long enough to know some happiness. Only he
[JML note: Raymond Paul Aguilar, Sr. was the dad; according to
available records he died in Vallejo, Cal. in 1999.]
These bitter memories have kept the many siblings apart. Seeing each
other, she said, only dredges up a common past that they all want to
Brown wrote the piece alone but has yet to hear any disagreement from
the family members who have seen it in the three days since it ran in
her mother's hometown. Nor has the paper received any.
"I wrote the truth," Brown insisted, throwing harsh light on a portion
of the death business that routinely has loved ones being borne away
to that "better place."
But don't think that I am making light of a reality that we attempt to
contain with such benign images. Though a more measured story of lives
lived and ended might prove more enriching for those left behind.
As a child, I read newspaper obits for direction, searching for
stories of men who did fantastic and selfless things to save others.
I still read the obituaries even though they now come in two forms,
the famous-person obit and the paid, formulaic obit like the one stood
on its head by Brown.
End-stories of the famous are generally written in advance and
maintained in go-condition by big news organizations. These short-form
tell-alls fold failures and successes into stories that often tell us
everything we need to know about the passing nature of glory.
But ever since newspapers went to paid obituaries we have been
deprived of the smaller views of everyday lives. These days it's the
"Beloved father of passed away on veteran of member of he loved life
survived by." And rarely do we even read the cause of death let alone
some telling detail of the good fight.
Occasionally someone will stretch the form to tell us in bought space
that, "If there is a heaven, Bob is now hoisting one with God."
Often, when a death becomes news, we run into the usual
contradictions. A former gang member shot to death had given up gangs.
A felon shot by police had very nearly gotten his life together.
It would seem that there is little need among the living to tarnish
even the most wasted lives.
Which is what makes Brown's writing so unusual, so seemingly brutal
and so hard to take in a world where we just as soon let our dead
depart for that better place without an honest word to inform us or
even make us feel.
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