Slimantics: The obituary as an art form

March 13, 2013 10:24:39 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


The art of writing involves showing rather than telling. 


The novice will write about a person being tall or beautiful or angry. 


The great writer will create an image of those qualities in the reader's mind. Readers don't want to be told; they want to see. 


Consider this example: 


"There were tears in her eyes." 


Now consider how Tom Robbins, in his novel "Still Life with Woodpecker," describes the same fact: 


"A teardrop hung out of each blue eye, like a fat woman leaning out of a tenement window." 


The images a great writer creates can make almost any subject fascinating. 


And that is why the Obituary of Harry Weathersby Stamps has become a phenomenon. It first appeared in the Biloxi Sun Herald on Sunday, an obituary so cleverly written, so full of detail and images that it has quickly "gone viral." By Wednesday morning. Stamps' online guest book on The Sun Herald's website had 800 entries from people all over the U.S. and Canada and even Nairobi, Kenya, and Auckland, New Zealand. 


The obituary was reprinted on the opinion page in Tuesday's edition of The Dispatch.  


If I were teaching an Intro to Creative Writing class, the obituary would be part of the reading requirement. 


In The Obituary of Harry Weathersby Stamps, you will find examples that demonstrate the art of writing. 


Indeed, that the life and times of Harry Weathersby Stamps could be of any interest to strangers as far away as Kenya and New Zealand is a testament as much to the writer as the subject. 


The obituary was written by one of his daughters, Amanda Lewis of Dallas, an attorney by trade and a writer by instinct. She didn't tell us about her father; she painted a portrait of him in words. 


The particulars of Mr. Stamps' life, presented as obituaries are typically written, would be nothing especially interesting to a stranger. He left behind no great legacy, amassed no vast fortune. He never held office, never wrote a novel, never achieved fame of any sort. Stamps was a community college professor. He was married for almost 50 years and had two daughters and two grandchildren. 


The obituary could have correctly stated Mr. Stamps loved his family, enjoyed gardening and camping and was "down-to-earth." He loved his job, talking politics and food. 


That would have been the "there were tears in her eyes" approach. 


Lewis gave us the "fat woman leaning out of a tenement window" version. 


Rather than say that Stamps loved his mom, sisters, wife and daughters, the author referred to Stamps as a "ladies man." Instead of acknowledging his fondness of gardening, the writer noted her father excelled at "growing camellias ... eradicating mole crickets ... composting pine needles ... outsmarting squirrels." 


Under the writer's careful care, Mr. Stamps was not simply interested in politics and religion, but "enjoyed watching politicians act like preachers and preachers act like politicians." Any man might expected to love his grandchildren, but Mr. Stamps would "crow like a rooster" during phone calls from his grandkids. 


He did not simply hold the rank of corporal during the Korean War, he held "the same rank as Napoleon." 


Standard obituaries are generally confined to the things the deceased loved and approved of.  


The Obituary of Harry Weathersby Stamps went so far as to include a litany of things he could scarcely tolerate, including but not limited to: Martha Stewart, know-it-all Yankees, Southerners who use the words "veranda" and "porte cochere," any of the many manifestations of the Law and Order TV series and Daylight Saving Time. Especially Daylight Saving Time. 


In the end, the writer did not simply present the mere facts of her father's life; she revealed her father to us through details, most of them small and seemingly unimportant. 


And yet those details are essential. Through them, we saw a man full of all the wonderful inconsistencies, arbitrary preferences and aversions, and charming idiosyncrasies that are common to all people. It is because those qualities are recognizable in all of us that the life of Harry Weathersby Stamps is appealing to all of us, even though we never knew him. 


Through the "showing" of her father's life, the author reminds us that most of us will not be remembered for the mere facts of our lives, but for the details that make us human. 


The Obituary of Harry Weathersby Stamps is the story of a life well-lived. 


It is a story well told.  


That's what good writers do.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]