Death and The Times-Picayune

LORI OSIECKI ILLUSTRATION

All her life, my mother-in-law, Ms. Larda, woke up to the thump of The Times-Picayune on her front porch. Not no more. Now she will only hear it on certain days of the week.

“I got to pick out which day to die on, Modine,” she says to me.

 Ms. Larda believes in being prepared. She ain’t even sick, but she’s already given a lot of thought to what picture should appear with her funeral notice. She has to choose between one from when she was young and buxom, or from now, when her buxomness has shifted downward a few inches. Or use two pictures, which I understand costs extra.

 I think two pictures would be a waste, because Ms. Larda is one of them people who don’t change that much. The only difference is her hairdo. Over the years, it swelled up from pageboy to beehive, then deflated to short and shaggy. And because she bought the do-it-yourself haircutting vacuum cleaner attachment, she looks like she got a baby porcupine on her head. But from the eyebrows down, she’s the same Ms. Larda.

Anyway, she don’t dare die over a weekend, she says. Even if they put out an extra Saints edition on certain days, they ain’t going to put no dead old ladies in that. The Advocate from Baton Rouge is delivering in New Orleans, but who knows if they’ll have room for people who kicked the bucket in St. Bernard? Plus, how many friends of hers will even get that paper? So, to be safe, she got to pass on to her eternal rewards on a Tuesday, early, to make the Wednesday Picayune, or on a Thursday for the Friday edition or on a Saturday to get in there on Sunday. Otherwise, nobody will know when the funeral is.

Either that, or they’re going to have to put her on ice and save her for the day after the Picayune comes out, but everybody will be doing that, so funeral homes are going to have to set up back-to-back services on them days. One bunch of mourners rushes out; another one storms in. And people ain’t used to being punctual at funerals. They will be grieving at the wrong coffins all over the place. It will be a mess, she says.

I tell her this is morbid talk, but she’s wound up now.

Turns out she’s an expert on death notices and obituaries. Used to be, she says, the papers all printed two articles: a nice schmaltzy death notice from the funeral home that said you had Flown Into The Arms of The Angels, and also a separate obituary that stated the facts like a news story – “died of digestive dysfunction after ingesting seven dozen raw oysters washed down with Dixie beer,” or something like that. No angels mentioned, but it always said what killed that person so you could take precautions, like not to eat that many raw oysters with beer. But now they just print the paid-for funeral home notices. So you don’t know what killed anybody, because the funeral homes are too polite to say.

Nowadays, Ms. Larda says, a serial killer could be poisoning one old lady after another, putting one of them clear, tasteless poisons in their prunes, and you wouldn’t get a clue from the funeral notices. All of them flew off with the angels, no reason given.

 Now if they had real obituaries, you would notice if you read seven or eight stories on the same page about ladies plunking over dead from gastric distress after breakfast. You would start to be suspicious. Maybe switch to Bloody Marys to wake you up in the morning.

But now you got to play detective. You got to look at the bottom of the notice and see what they want you to donate to in lieu of flowers. American Cancer Society? – cancer got that one. Heart Association – OK, it was cholesterol, maybe. For once, Ms. Larda says, “I would like to see one that reads ‘Oh, go ahead and send flowers.’”

 And the real obituaries used to include the person’s age, like it or not. Ms. Larda says Aunt Lu told Uncle Ferman on her deathbed to keep her real age out of the paper, and he tried, but that was back when they wrote obituaries like news stories. So some hotshot little reporter-intern looked up Aunt Lu’s vital statistics and that’s how everybody found out she was 82. Uncle Ferman said she haunted him for that.

But Ms. Larda ain’t worried about that. She ain’t even worried that nobody will show up at her funeral if she dies on a Sunday. She is worried because if she dies on a Sunday, she would have probably missed Sunday Mass, which is a sin and will send her to purgatory. And she’ll have to wait around in purgatory until her friends read about it on Wednesday and start saying their rosaries to get her bailed out of there and into Heaven.

 The announcement will be online, I tell her. Nobody my age reads no online, she says. Just young people read online, but they don’t read obituaries, because nobody they know ever dies, unless it’s from texting while driving or getting shot. For that, they might eventually get a news write-up. Or not, since I hear the Picayune fired half the reporters.

I tell her, maybe the TV could handle it. Have somebody come on every day with a voice like Darth Vader and read the names of everybody who died, real solemn. And tell what they died of – in a nice way. “Flew Into the Arms of The Angels because of choking on a chicken bone.” Something like that. Put it in Oprah’s old time slot. They could call it “The Death Show.” It would be a big hit.

Anybody out there listening?

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