Remembering a time when passing remarks were free

In MemoryThe recent death of Billings Outpost columnist Roger Clawson created pause for reflection—not just about Roger—but life, death, obituaries and newspapering in general.

The Outpost had a tribute to Roger as well as a formal just-the-facts-ma’am obituary. Outpost editor David Crisp’s account, and the obituary, appeared online via Last Best News even before the Outpost went to press. Later, Ed Kemmick of Last Best News published his own reflections on Roger.

Neither charged a cent for the coverage.

Both adhered to the old, perhaps archaic, notion that each death represents the loss of a community member and thus is legitimate news.

Unlike the Outpost or Last Best News, the Billings Gazette follows the new newspaper model—there’s gold in them thar corpses—and survivors are billed for obits by the column inch as if they were advertising a garage sale.

In the case of Native Americans, the Gazette policy proved to be a cobalt mine. The sponsors would pony up to mention which clan the deceased was “from” or “for.” It also is obligatory to include a list of relatives, shirt-tail relatives, adopted relatives and just plain friends and good buddies.

Payment also includes a line apologizing if anyone was left out.

When the Gazette and other predatory Lee Enterprises Montana dailies began charging for obits in the late 1980s, I was a card-carrying columnist for the then-rival (and then-great) Great Falls Tribune.

Since the Tribune did not yet charge for obituaries, I wrote a holier-than-thou, tongue-in-cheek column, “Do-it-yourself obituaries can be expansive undertaking.” The premise was, since obituaries are paid advertising and there are few truth-in-advertising standards, pretty much anything goes.

I wrote of my own death, and of John Elway’s tearful, impassioned eulogy before a packed house at Mile High Stadium. Elway mentioned that I was often compared— or compared myself—to greats such as London, Hemingway, Hugo, Dan Cushman and Nelson Algren.

He promised to win not one, but two, Super Bowls in my name.

In ancient times, the first job of all new newspaper hires was to write their own obituaries. This served several purposes. Editors could discern the newbies’ writing and spelling skills. The more eagle-eyed could figure out that “attended Oxford” actually referred to that bar in Missoula rather than Cambridge. And of course, if the rookie did kick the bucket …

Indeed, when I taught night-school adult writing classes for Billings Public Schools, that was always the first assignment—your own obituary. Read it to the class, fill the holes, clean it up. And put it in a drawer next to your will and life-insurance policy.

At the Tribune, it was law that each obituary included the cause of death. No exceptions. And none of this “entering the Celestial Plane,” “running into the welcoming arms of Jesus” or “riding that Big Harley-Davidson in the sky.”

Just “died.”

In the case of suicides or other nasty endings, it was always the last line, the last paragraph.

So when survivors clipped the story to put it in the family scrapbook, they could always snip off the unpleasant truth before applying the glue.

Lifelong Montanan T.J. Gilles is retired and living in Costa Rica. 

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