How to Write an Obituary

Sgt. Bentley reenacting the good (and bad) old days

Writing specialties, where the writer addresses a narrow niche or fixed focus, are interesting in several ways. Some copywriters do a single thing: write white papers for the oil industry, or technical documentation for telephony applications, or sales letters for Fortune 500 clients. Early in my writing career, I was employed by Kennan Ward, a photographer for whom I wrote the backs of his nature-oriented postcards and notecards.

At first writing within the card’s restrictions seemed like a clumsy, scattered means of expressing information, but in time I developed a structure and flow for the short pieces that still afforded creativity, while delivering the mandated facts about the depicted scenes and animals. But the reason I’m writing about writing cubbyholes is because I wrote an obituary (with my sister Colleen’s help) yesterday for my father—and obituary writing is peculiar unto itself.

It’s very necessary to deliver dates and numbers in an obituary: marriages, births, number of children, date of death, and a passel of facts as well: interests, significant jobs, milestones, avocations. But mixed in the orderly stone columns of a life’s spreadsheet, you must attest to the blooming flowers in a tangled field, a comical toy under a towel, a mysterious box that makes you wonder what’s inside, a whisper of pain, pleasure—something of that indefinable stuff that separates us from the insects.

Wrestling with a Word Count
In writing my father’s obituary, I tried to put in the columns and the toys, because a person’s life is so much more than a numbered row of facts. But then my sister, long a reporter, reminded me that placing eulogies in various papers is damn pricey—Tom’s tendency to bound across word-fields needed a leash. The person who places the obits told my sister “Too bad you and your brother aren’t mathematicians instead of writers, because then you’d see how much it costs!”

Today I’m taking a shot at writing a eulogy as well, for the rosary service. That writing should be easier, in that no mathematicians will tamper with the word count; my father was an eccentric character, and when telling stories, you don’t want to clamp down hard on the words. I want to write the eulogy, and want to do it well for my father, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want this death-based writing to become my specialty—it takes a bite out of you.

Here’s what my sis and I came up with, after several rounds of hacking:

Robert K. Bentley, 1917-2011
Robert K. Bentley, beloved husband and cherished father, left this world for the next on New Year’s Day. Despite suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the past 10 years, “Sarge” Bentley remained a cheerful, steady presence in his family home, up to the end showing the warmth and humor that characterized his life. His “glad you got to see me” always drew quizzical looks and then laughs from people who met him for the first time.

Sarge was born on May 14, 1917, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Despite living more than 60 years in Southern California, he maintained that Colorado had it over any spot in the world. He brought back a large glass jar from one of our annual summer trips, full of clean Colorado air, and every so often he would take it off the fireplace mantel and grab a whiff of it, careful to leave enough to savor another day. Quarterback of his high-school football team, he never admitted that he managed to break his knee on purpose during a big game to win the affections of concerned cheerleaders.

Sarge was a waist gunner on B-17s in WWII, flying 35 missions primarily over Germany. He listed every mission in a small, 3x6 inch leather-bound notebook. After WWII, he was drafted out of the Army reserves and served in the Korean War, spending much time in Japan. He earned the stripes and the nickname that stayed with him until the end of his days from those years in the service of his country.

Sarge met his bride-to-be, Eileen O’Brien, while stationed in Long Beach, CA in 1945. She worked at the old Manning’s Restaurant on Pine Avenue, and when he came in to eat one day, she elbowed aside the other waitresses so she could carry the tray of that handsome man. They married on May 30, 1947.

Sarge worked at the Ford Motor plants in Long Beach and Pico Rivera City for 39 years—and in those years, the number of days he missed work could be counted on one hand. That kind of steady, old-fashioned perseverance was a mark of his character, a character defined by consistent warmth and fellowship. After his retirement, he became a congenial nuisance around the house, golfing occasionally, and traveling to Alaska, Ireland and Las Vegas, where he was a good friend of the casino craps tables, occasionally winning but sometimes not, so the drive back to Long Beach could seem awfully long. He was known in the neighborhood for his warm welcomes and his zany front-yard signs, boosting his Colorado sports teams, especially the Denver Broncos, and commenting on the times.

He is survived by his wife Eileen, his four children, Colleen Bentley, Kathleen Bentley, Rick Bentley and Tom Bentley, his grandson Zach King and several nieces and nephews and grandnieces and nephews. Despite him living a full, rich 93 years, they wish he could have lived forever.

Touching the Essence
I wanted it to say more. Not more words, but more essence—but that’s the challenge, always the crucible of trying to write. This obit is what we have, and this will do. Dad, I hope you like it.

A Last Salute to the Sergeant

Robert Bentley, surrounded by his family, 1958

Writing is connection, whether with words that precede, or words that follow; writing can be framed with themes and directions only hinted at, only suggested with faint trails. Sentences are families of words, sometimes taut ropes of enduring bond, other times rambling things, of loose alliance, dim fellowship or tangled expression.

I just returned from a holiday week with my family. An interesting time: my father, who has been deep in Alzheimer’s grip for many years, and essentially bed-bound for the last couple, was notably alert. Always a warm man, he was visibly pleased to be in the company of all his kids. He delighted in eating, still feeding himself from a bedside tray, shaky and slow with the spoon, but still managing. One time I brought him his food, and he looked up and said, “What do I owe you?” He was a man quick with a joke all his life, but it was still a surprise when he would surface from the glazed, almost frozen state that marked the bulk of his day and venture out with some words, a connection, before returning to the quietude of his condition.

But in that condition, there was still a man in there, still pushing time. He remembered my name a couple of times during this visit, and amazed me when he had been sitting in his wheelchair (helped in and out by caretakers, for short periods a few days a week) and had been staring silently into his stillness for a while, but turned to me reading on the couch and said, “Hey, what book are you reading?” I was taken aback—and delighted—by his abrupt spark, and related the book’s title and contents, and then he smiled and returned to his cloistered musings.

Yesterday, he fell ill, and was taken to the emergency room. His big heart, repeatedly remarked upon by his doctors for its steady strength in his advanced age, was fluttering and weak. He fought through the night, but left this plane for the next, a bit after 6am this morning. Sarge Bentley, a good man, my father, gone this New Year’s Day at 93. A life—how can you sum it up, count and consider its gestures, its feelings, its words, its connections?

I loved him, and will miss him, as will all my family. I’m grateful for this Christmas, and for the long years we had him. I’m grateful for being able to tell him I loved him when I said goodbye to return home a few days ago, and grateful for the integrity of his life.