I have a paper clutter problem at home. One cause of that problem is that I tear out newspaper and magazine articles that interest me. I figure I’ll use the articles for reference or blog content at some later point in time, so the paper collects in files or small piles. I was getting a jump on spring cleaning when I found this ragged article on a floor.
“Far-right, anti-Semitic organizer who denied the Holocaust”
This obituary for — I’ll call him “Mr. C” — was the largest headline on the page. Most prominent obituaries trumpet the professional or civic accomplishments of the deceased, leaving a reader with a sense of a community’s or family’s deeply-felt loss. But, Mr. C’s obituary read like a resumé of his efforts to advance extremist beliefs. Even Washington, D.C.’s spin-meisters wouldn’t salvage this one.
I wondered: Did a bitter family member submit the obituary? Nope. Maybe there was someone left behind who was getting left out? Nope. This missive was written by “Staff Reports.” It was fine, objective reporting and writing. The Staff worked with what they had.
There didn’t seem to be any material that could cast the deceased Mr. C in a sympathetic or heroic light. There weren’t statements to indicate his beliefs actually helped anyone. What more could Staff say about an apparent recluse, who didn’t seem to have any personal or significant relationships? Even his wife lived in a different city, and there was only one sentence to acknowledge her existence.
The obituary noted that ‘Mr. C’ was notorious for his “extremist views” that “resonated with generations of neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements.” Among his recommendations was that “black Americans be deported to Africa.” (We’ve heard that one before.) Evidently, Mr. C’s pro-segregation / apartheid /white separatist / anti-Semitic publications and organizations landed them on Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center watch lists.
Mr. C was noted as being way far right and conservative. But, not even William F. Buckley, Jr. wanted him in his camp.
I looked for nuggets of humanity and personal relationships; some bit of redemption in the long summary of Mr. C’s life. I thought he would have been beloved among his fellow extremists, but he wasn’t. He had failed relationships, even among that crowd. His network was strewn with burned bridges.
Upon his death, only the publications Mr. C founded said anything positive. They expressed gratitude that he championed their extremist causes. The only additional information I gleaned was that he had served in the military and earned a Purple Heart.
In contrast, I saw this heading for a politician’s death notice in Time magazine, February 15, 2016: “Beloved mayor, convicted felon.” This heading ticked off the plus and minus boxes of the mayor’s life. The writeup was brief, but very clear that the mayor’s legacy was his contributions to his city, through his support of arts and historic preservation, new parks, and schools. The pluses of the mayor’s life eclipsed his felony conviction.
I was laughing when I described Mr. C’s obituary headline to a friend. Were there raucous cheers out there somewhere at the news of his demise, like the residents of Oz when they heard “The Wicked Witch is dead”? I was incredulous that this was the best life this guy was willing to live, and he had worked very hard at it. Readers might surmise that Mr. C had succeeded in being an asshole his whole adult life.
Even though it was funny in that sense, it was very sad in another. No friends, no family, no life.
Let’s consider Mr. C’s obituary to be “Exhibit A” for how you do not want to be remembered. In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington said that people can “live up to the best version of [their] eulogy.” Along that same line, a famous poem, “The Dash,” explains that life occurs in the dash between your date of birth and your date of death. The poem concludes with the question whether you would be proud of the things said at your eulogy.