The Dead Beat

New Contributing Writer Steve Fiffer ruminates on the curious phenomenon of the Obituary

Phil Winick, 87, founder of the Fluky's hot dog restaurants, died Wednesday in Louis B. Weiss Memorial Hospital.  Mr. Winick served up hot dogs in Chicago for more than three decades.  After retiring in the late 1960s, he was inducted into the Vienna Sausage Co.'s hall of fame... Chicago Sun Times obituary

Ambrose Bierce once defined a lawsuit as, "a machine that you go into as a pig and come out as a sausage."  In a sense the same can be said of obituaries.     

When my father--a lawyer, not a sausage maker--died suddenly some thirty-five years ago, the firm that bore his name mobilized immediately.  One partner was put at the disposal of our family.  Another was assigned the task of calling all major clients to assure them that the firm would continue despite the death of its leader.   A third partner was instructed to pull out all the stops to get the biggest, most flattering obituary into the Chicago newspapers.   

As my father had accomplished a great deal in his life and, incidentally represented the Chicago Press Club and knew many newspapermen, securing a sizable and glowing obituary proved relatively easy.   The headline, however, was a bit discomfiting.  "Robert Fiffer, 48, dies in car."   True, the heart attack had occurred while he was driving, but I remember thinking--even at the height of my grief--"Robert Fiffer, attorney and civic leader" might have been a more fitting legacy.

Lest one think that no one save the family remembers such headlines, I must report that some years later I was introduced to the owner of a health club that I had just joined.  "Fiffer," he said, trying to place the name.  "Did your father die in his car?"

I nodded.

"You know, I almost bought that car when his law firm was selling it, but it seemed a little too spooky for me."

Now well past the age at which my father died, I find the obituaries have become my favorite section of the newspaper.   On many mornings I surprise myself and start with the death notices before even turning to the sports section.  I want to know who died and what they died from.  But most important,  I want to know how the lives they lived can be summarized in a few short lines.   How do the survivors want their loved one remembered?  And, how does the newspaper choose to portray the deceased?

It is clear from the rest of Mr. Winick's obituary that his family stressed the sausage hall of fame connection.  "He was one of Vienna's original customers," his son-in-law is quoted as saying.  

Recently, the family of one of my mother's friends was not so fortunate in shaping their loved one's obituary.  "They're angry at the paper," my mom told me.   


"Because it didn't mention that Irv invented artificial intelligence."

This was news to me, and I had known the man for ten years.  "I thought he was in marketing,"  I said.

"Well, his kids are convinced that he invented artificial intelligence and that the obituary should have mentioned it."

For whose sake? I wondered.   Irv was dead.   Would the family derive some solace from the trumpeting of his achievements (real or imagined), be soothed by a newspaper's validation that the deceased had accomplished something in his lifetime?

A few weeks later another friend reported that his business partner was livid because his wife's obituary had been so short.  It seems that, as with a certain male appendage, we measure ourselves or our loved one's against others by the length of our obituaries.

Thus it was that another friend, upon his mother's passing, was told in no uncertain terms by his father to insure that the departed be made the feature obituary in the hometown newspaper.

Our friend, already depressed by the death, sank to even lower depths.  His mother had been a fine woman, but had done nothing to justify anything more than the standard death notice.  Knowing his father would be devastated by such short shrift, the son quickly searched through his mother's papers in hope of finding something that an obituary writer could run with.   Alas, the most interesting crumb he could offer was the fact that his mother had held a clerical job for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.   He presented this information to the funeral director and begged him to pull any strings he could.

When the paper arrived the next morning, our friend held his breath as his father turned to the obituary section.   Only when the father smiled for the first time in a week, did the son exhale.  "Look at this headline," the proud widower beamed.

S---- K----, helped develop A-Bomb.   

A lengthy obituary followed.

I confess that I sometimes wonder how long my own obituary will be.  Recently, I read an obituary in the Times that noted that a book that the deceased had written had won the Gustavus Myers Award.   My eyes grew wide.   A book I had written had also won the Myers Award.   At the time I had thought little of it.  There was no monetary prize, no plaque, not even a ceremony--just a congratulatory letter.  Now, I realized there would be a payoff.  "My obituary just grew an inch," I told my wife.  

Ah but if I could only make that Sausage Hall of Fame…







 Steve Fiffer is a New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including the memoir, "Three Quarters, Two Dimes, and a Nickel."  Essays have appeared in New York Times magazine,, Chicago Tribune magazine, and many other venues.