Life, Death and Everything in Between

Long ago and far away newspapers were delivered by boys and girls - mostly boys - by bicycle or on foot after school to nearly every north state home and business.

In those days, nearly everyone - rich and poor, old and young alike - read newspapers. This was back before cable television, when, here in our region, there were basically three functioning channels, helped along by a rabbit-ear antenna on top of the TV: network channels 7 and 12, and public television channel 9.

This was long before cell phones, or even answering machines. Most homes had one dial-telephone shared by an entire family, and it was possible to leave one's phone home alone all day while everyone went to work or school. Away from home, there were pay phones if you absolutely had to use a phone. At home, if the phone rang while people were away, the phone just rang and rang, and like that proverbial lone tree falling unobserved in the forest, nobody was the wiser.

Times were different then in so many other ways. For example, for the life of me I cannot now fathom the concept of youngsters being allowed to deliver newspapers alone for miles. The thought terrifies me.

And, practically speaking, how did newspaper delivery boys and girls hold down that newspaper job and still find time for homework, chores and school activities?

Once upon a time, even kids read newspapers.

But I digress. I was talking about newspapers.

As a kid, I loved to read everything from cereal boxes and "Little House on the Prairie" series to "Nancy Drew" mysteries and comic books. So I happily transitioned as an adolescent to reading newspapers nearly cover to cover. I remember feeling disappointed when I reached the back page, because that meant I was finished, and I'd have to wait until tomorrow for the next newspaper. Sometimes, If I were really bored, I'd even scan the sports section, and skim the hard news, but I was most interested in feature stories, Ann Landers, horoscopes, the food section, classifieds, comics, Pet of the Week, entertainment, births and divorces, and the "society page" with weddings and engagements, adorned with photos of love-struck couples.

I failed to mention one particularly special section, and that's because it feels morbid to admit that obituaries were among my favorite parts of the newspaper. Even as a teenager, I read all the obituaries, despite the fact that I rarely recognized any names, because I hadn't yet reached that stark stage of life when death preys on peers. What I liked about obituaries was I could read between the lines to imagine what those departed people's lives were like before death cut things short. Those obituaries were understated, brief, technically well-written, and followed a basic format: Name, age, city, death date/birth date/birth place, employment, education, clubs, survivors and services. No fluff. No frills. Just facts.

As a teenage newspaper consumer, I vividly recall when reading obituaries that if the age of the departed was anything higher than 40, that sounded about right to me. No tragedy here. They were so old!

Years later, when I became a journalist and spent a decade working for the same newspaper I'd grown up reading, I learned that the obituaries were written by the editorial staff, and meticulous care was given to accuracy. The copy desk was a stickler for making sure the obituaries were done correctly, partly out of a sense of journalistic perfectionism, but also because few things can cause greater heartburn in a newsroom than calls about botched obituaries. From zero to 60, grief-stricken folks can go from really sad to raging mad.

In those days, death notices arrived via fax to the editorial secretary's desk from local mortuaries, and then the information was copied and typed by hand. Anyone who lived and died within the newspaper's circulation range could have an obituary written by the editorial staff, often interns, under great scrutiny by their editors.

It didn't matter if a departed's family lived in a mansion or didn't have two dimes to rub together. Everyone got an obituary. No charge.

Times changed. The local newspaper went from being delivered in the afternoons to being delivered in the early mornings, this time, by adult contract drivers, not kids. The number of reporters and photographers plummeted to where it is now, a skeleton crew of multi-tasking, multi-media professionals who you could count on barely two hands. God bless them every one, two, three ....

No segue, but have I told you lately how glad I am to not work for a corporate newspaper in 2018? So glad.

The days of that vibrant horse-shoe-shaped copy desk in the newsroom's center, staffed by a team of top-notch copy editors? Long gone, replaced by a "universal" desk located somewhere far away from the north state, where well-meaning out-of-state copy editors have no clue that here in Shasta County, "Roaring Gulch" is a fictitious place only trotted out during Rodeo Week, and in the summer of 2018, it's Carr, not Car.

Buyouts were offered to senior staff, most of whom wisely took them and split. The majority of the art department was outsourced to Lord knows where. Editorial librarians and/or editorial secretaries were deemed expendable. And the glory days of a robust editorial board, and a full-time onsite publisher and editor went the way of telephone booths and carbon paper.

Toward the end of my newspaper career the advertising side of the paper assumed control of the obituaries. Suddenly, the obituaries were no longer written by journalists, but by grieving lay people, often ill-equipped to write those last precious words about their loved ones. Typos, misspellings and embarrassing mistakes galore were published in ink, then lovingly clipped with scissors and saved in scrapbooks and family Bibles, where, years from now, stunned descendants will surely read those poorly written tributes and wonder what the hell.

Worse yet, families now had to pay dearly to have even substandard obituaries published. Averages of about $1 a word were not uncommon. In fact, some obituaries could reach into the $1,000 range, depending upon the fullness of a departed person's life, or the number of survivors. For what it's worth, using that formula, if this column were an obituary, it would set a family back about $1,500.

That's why, for budget's sake, when it comes time to pay for a newspaper obituary, in the end, having a boring grandpa isn't such a bad thing after all.

In all seriousness, I remember a young couple whose baby died, and they had to ask their parents for money to pay for their child's obituary. The bad news? Your baby dies. The other bad news? You can't afford its obituary.

In a way, as disturbing as I found those newspaper-obituary changes, they eventually proved irrelevant. Newspaper circulation numbers crashed so low that an alarming phenomena occurred: People were dying, but there weren't enough people reading the obituaries for the public at large to learn about deaths in time to attend services or express condolences. I don't know about you, but I've lost count of how many times I've heard of someone's passing long after the funeral is over.

Obviously, I'm not referring to inner-circle deaths, but acquaintances, former colleagues and classmates, respected community leaders, favorite teachers, dear old neighbors; all people whose passing I would have liked to have acknowledged; had I only known.

Of course, those are the ones I know about. How can we know ... if we don't know?

My heart aches at the thought of the added dose of sadness families feel when funerals are sparsely attended, and pews are empty, not because the departed person wasn't valued, but because people who might have attended didn't learn the sad news until it was too late.

Good news

Doni felt compelled to have a photo here, but this was the only thing she could come up with.

Truly, this column does have a point.

This week, I'm proud to announce that aNewsCafe.com has started publishing death notices, thanks to a collaboration with Allen & Dahl Funeral Chapels. (And thanks to Joe Domke, for working his technical magic.)

Luckily for us, the days of faxed death notices and tediously typed information are over. Here in the 21st century, death notices are sent electronically and will be uploaded automatically.

If you haven't discovered the new death notices section yet, you'll find it between the Convo Cafe and the general comments box, two of our most-read sections. It's still a work in progress, so stay tuned. Because the death notice box has a limited capacity, click on See More Death Notices for the rest. I hope you'll get in the habit of checking that section daily. You can bet I will.

Also, I'm pleased to share the awesome news that we are offering an obituary-writing service; work done by professional writers, published here on aNewsCafe.com. We have created a link for loved ones to guide them through the process of providing information to help us create an obituary, complete with photos. This is voluntary, unrelated to the death notices, which, for now, are provided by Allen & Dahl Funeral Chapels.

There is no greater honor nor greater pressure than to write an obituary. It's a colossal responsibility to summarize a person's entire life with mere words. For that reason, it's also one of my favorite kinds of writing, because to write an obituary means that someone has entrusted me with the weighty task to create a permanent record that reports what was noteworthy about their loved one; to share the rare opportunity to bear witness that this special individual was here on this planet, and he or she left an indelible, memorable mark.

Here at aNewsCafe.com, we have always published obituaries, usually about people close to our online family of readers and/or contributors. Sometimes they're written by us. Sometimes they're written and submitted by families and friends of the departed.

As much as I wish I could offer this service at no cost, we will charge a nominal flat fee so we can compensate our staff members who write the obituaries. Our first official obituary writer is Bethany Chamberlain, and yes, she's my sister; a talented, award-winning writer. Truth be told, she can write circles around me.

I know the topic of death can sound depressing, but I feel absolutely elated to offer death notices and obituaries on aNewsCafe.com. At last, we are able to honor those who've lived and died among us by recognizing and remembering them. But before we can do that, we have to be informed that they've passed.

On a less somber note, watch for upcoming new features on aNewsCafe.com that deal with happier aspects of life, such as births, weddings, engagements, and more.

From the beginning to the end -- and everything in between -- we'll do our best to cover it all.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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31 Responses

  1. Beverly Stafford says:

    I did notice the new Death Notices section and wondered if Obituaries are far behind. I subscribe to my little hometown newspaper online, and about the only section I read is the obituaries. I like knowing when friends, friends’ parents, friends’ children, or past teachers have passed on. I’m always a bit relieved when I go to the obituary section and don’t know any of the people who have died. But because of the obituary section, I have been able to send condolences to survivors and donations on behalf of the deceased.

  2. Good morning, early riser. 🙂

    Your point about keeping up with hometown news for the obituaries is precisely why we’re offering this feature. I’m really excited about it.

  3. Vicki Gallagher says:

    Thank you for this service Doni. You are awesome!

  4. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading obituaries and imagining the lives behind them. This is great news: it would be a shame if obituaries themselves died away.

  5. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I have one of those something-aught, new-decade birthdays tomorrow, and I’m feeling a little nostalgic. Doni’s first three paragraphs had me pining for how thing used to be—particularly the bit about not being enslaved to phones. Later in the essay, the daily ritual of plowing through the newspaper—yep, that was me as well. I still subscribe to the local fish-wrap for Friday-Sunday delivery, and I have the e-subscription, but that’s largely out of a sense of duty to a dying medium—I can barely stand to look. It’s such a bummer, walking quarter mile to the end of our driveway and retrieving the thin bundle of generic, dumbed-down dross that USA Today shits out as a so-called local newspaper.

    Every once in blue moon, the local shocks me and comes out with a dandy of a multimedia article—the most recent was an in-depth investigation of a local grifter—and reading it made me decide to keep up my subscription and feel mournful at the same time. Because DAMN, they’re so few and far between.

    Even the Sacramento Bee is a shadow of its former self. That newspaper used to do investigative reporting so thorough and dense with information that it took a week-long series of articles to get the full story out. It took well over 30 minutes to read the paper in the morning, and that left much to be read after school or work. Those days are long gone.

    As for obituaries? I’m just an occasional reader. Count me among those who cringe at self-service obits. But then, also count me as one who has harbored the thought of writing my own smart-alecky obit and filing it away for future use. Of course—as you can see from this comment—it’d probably be long and pricy. A real financial burden to those left behind.

  6. First, Steve, happy almost-birthday. Don’t worry. It will be fine. I’m ahead of you, and so far, the coast is clear and things look good.

    Second, you literally made me laugh out loud at the end of your first paragraph.

    Third, I think that self-authored obituaries are awesome. Rest assured that aNewsCafe.com, we don’t charge by the word or column inch, so it can be as long as you wish. With that in mind, you’ll want to make sure it’s published here. But who knows how that will work, since I’m older than you, so I’ll probably go first.

    Do we have to wait to read your obituary after you die? Sooner might be more fun. (We might be onto something.)

    Have a great birthday, Steve. I hope there’s cake and prizes and a party involved. I’m glad you were born. This site wouldn’t be the same without you.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      Hey, thanks, Doni. I think I’ll hold off on writing that auto-obituary for now—I don’t want it to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. But if I do get around to it, I’d definitely want it run here after I shuffle off this mortal coil. Though I’m in general agreement with my favorite Biblical writer, The Ecclesiast, in that I don’t think I’ll be caring much: goo.gl/hHqrNs

      Revising our current obsession with phones, is this conversation familiar to others?

      Young person: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, and I texted you like an hour ago, and you didn’t respond, so we went ahead without you!

      Me: You texted me? If you wanted an immediate response, why didn’t you just call me? I answer texts and emails when I get to them.

      Young person (after blinking at me for a moment): Oh my God—what are you, about 100 years old? Nobody *calls* anyone any more.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        Sorry. That dead link was supposed to take you to Ecclesiastes 9. Take your pick of online Bibles if you’re curious. The topic: Death comes to all (and what to do about it).

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        I’ve read that telephone books are dinosaurs to those of us who are, “about 100 years old?”. But I’m damned if I can ever find a phone number online without subscribing to one service or another. Am I missing some wonderful site that has actual white pages from phone books?

        And speaking of “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah: we were in the grocery store yesterday looking at the craft beers. There was one called Blah Blah Blah. If any of you are familiar with The Austin Lounge Lizards, they do a song titled Old Blevins. Old Blevins’ conversations were “sound bites” preceded by blah, blah, blah: Example, Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, how ’bout them Cowboys? We renamed the beer Old Blevins.

        • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

          I’m familiar with Blah Blah Blah IPA by 21st Amendment. It’s a wry joke on the dizzying number of IPA variations out there, and the seriousness of IPA aficionados, many of whom make insufferable wine snobs look like people you’d want to hang with.

          Austin Lounge Lizards….I’m so crushing on you right now. You bringing them up has me listening to them on Spotify. “Jesus Loves Me (But He Can’t Stand You) just finished and it’s now it’s on to “Stupid Texas Song.”

  7. AJ AJ says:

    I don’t know . … I may be completely out of round (not to be confused with being a SQUARE) but I really prefer texts. … but don’t expect an immediate response. The reason being is that I’m REEEAAALLLY old, and as such, REALLLY forgetful so it’s nice to have the text in hand so that I can go back and check details. As in: “Oh yeah, she did say lunch was at 11:00 not 11:30.”

  8. Beverly Stafford says:

    Happy cake-and-candle day, Steve. As one birthday card I saw said: “My dog wishes you a happy birthday. Don’t worry about being older; it’s better than being neutered”

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      Thanks. That birthday card reminded me of a joke:

      ‘When I was a kid I really wanted to be a veterinarian…….but then I found out it’s not just cutting the balls off of cats all day long.”

  9. Eleanor Townsend says:

    At the age of 14, I used to deliver newspapers (alone) on my bicycle at a 4am, and then go house to house on Saturdays picking up the payments. (No, it wasn’t uphill both ways….) Ah, the good old days! (Yikes). This will be good, Doni, because I really want to acknowledge, in person if possible, the passing of people I know/knew.
    Truly cannot wait (there’s something wrong with that) for Bethany’s obituaries – anyone who can ‘write circles around’ you is way worth reading, whatever she writes. Yay for Bethany joining the talent!!

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      My sister and I attended a gathering in our home town where lots of ex-pat residents attended. I caught up with an old friend and introduced him to my sister who has kept her maiden name. When Friend heard her surname, he paused for a moment and said, “105 Pierce Street” which was our address all the years we lived there. He had been our newspaper delivery boy 50 years ago, and remembered most of his clients’ addresses. You probably remember many of your clients, too, Eleanor.

    • Wow. I cannot imagine young Eleanor delivering newspapers on a bike, leaving at 4 a.m. And THAT’S probably why you turned out so accomplished and awesome.

      And yes, the obituaries are in gifted hands with Bethany.

  10. Bruce Vojtecky says:

    When I was young I delivered the newspaper on my bike. I read that Warren Buffet also delivered newspaper when he was young. He is in the top five richest people in the world and I’m not. Must have been the newspaper he delivered had stock quotes, it did.

    • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

      I delivered papers for the Star-Free Press out of Ventura when I was eleven and twelve. It was an afternoon paper then, except for Sundays.

      Sundays, I would set out in the dark, with no helmet and a light that maybe shined five feet ahead. After a couple of months, a dog–he looked to be a Shepherd mix–started joining me a couple of miles into my eight-mile route. He would wait for me in what I assumed was “his” front yard, and stay with me until the last mile of my route, when he would peel off to head home. He had a tag on his collar with his name: “Bart.”

      Bart would accompany me most every Sunday for several months, but after he missed two Sundays in a row, I got worried. On the third Sunday, there was a For Sale sign in Bart’s front yard. I was kind of relieved, and hopeful that Bart and his humans had moved somewhere with a bigger yard.

      I gave up the route a few months later. Sunday mornings just lost their magic without Bart.

      • SEE?!! Comments like yours, Hal, and others, like Eleanor – who tell stories in these comments, are just the icing on the cake of what we publish.

        Hal, I love this story about Bart. Beautifully told. Thank you.

  11. Janine Hall says:

    Ah Hal, that was so sweet. An nice way for the end of your post. I would have missed Bart and the magic of him too.
    I agree with the way the news papers have gone. I finally gave up my subscription some months ago. Just couldn’t justify the cost of the paper to start a fire in the winter.
    I get a lot more news here and elsewhere than the paper was providing.

  12. Beverly Stafford says:

    Even now – these how many years since Doni left the local wrap and I stopped our subscription? Ten+ years? – I still miss having a newspaper at the breakfast table. The few times I’ve glanced at the Wretched Flashlight as I’ve walked past a newspaper stand, I’ve guessed that it would take all of five minutes to get through that skinny little rag. I admit to going online Sundays to look at David Benda’s business column and enjoying it. I can look at something like nine or ten articles before I’m banished from the site for another month. I generally don’t read that many.

  13. Candace C says:

    I think it’s wonderful that Doni will be including obituaries for a nominal fee. I subscribe to ANC and support ANC whole-heartedly. Born and raised in Redding California, I worked at the RS for 33 years and was laid off fairly recently when the new company bought it. I’m 61 years old. I too remember the “good ol’ days” of the newspaper. While I support ANC I also support the RS. There are people like David Benda still working there who work hard every day and support families just like most folks do here in Shasta County. Was I happy to be laid off? Of course not. I don’t, however, believe that disparaging the RS or as many call it “ The Wretched Flashlight” serves any purpose. ANC is healthy and smart and well informed all on its own without the RS bashing.

  14. AJ AJ says:

    I subscribed to the “Wretched Flashlight” for many, many years The year they no longer carried my five favorite writers, I pulled the plug. Doni, Keri Regan, Jon Lewis, Jim Dyer and Dave Barry. Glad to see so many of you living between ANC and ENJOY magazine. I’ll read anything any one of them writes . . . . even the obituaries.

  15. Candace C says:

    AJ, Having worked at the RS for years I know the people you mentioned and I too will read anything they write and am also glad they’re doing well contributing to ANC and Enjoy. I’m not saying I support all decisions the RS has made through the years, far from it. The thing I think people forget sometimes is that the folks still working there trying to hang on to their jobs are more oft than not not the ones making the hiring/firing decisions. I don’t take issue with anyone deciding not to spend their dollars somewhere, that’s their right. My point is that I’m not sure what the RS bashing accomplishes unless it simply just makes one feel better to do so. I guess if that’s it, have at it. Like I said before, I subscribe and whole-heartedly support both Doni and ANC.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      Candace, all that you say is true about supporting the journalists but not the administrators of the Searchlight. However, not only did those in charge fire so many of my favorites, they also stopped delivering to us in the sticks. By then I had stopped subscribing due to their firing policy, but had I wanted to continue reading it, the choice was either to have it delivered by mail (a day late) or make a 10+ mile round trip to a service station where it was delivered and purchase it. I subscribe to our little weekly paper up here online. The online edition is a .pdf of the paper. Some years ago, I decided to try the Searchlight online, and it was a ludicrous attempt at best. The same headline story appeared day after day and trying to search was impossible. I don’t know why, since the paper became so limited in size, it couldn’t be presented in .pdf form. Perhaps that has changed over the years. As it is, I still go online on Sundays to read David Benda for free. Since we had a double whammy here in Eastern County of the RS firing our favorites and then stopping delivery here, it’s difficult to remember those who still make a living at the paper.

  16. Candace C says:

    Beverly, I hear ya. Good thing Doni is now making more things available to you on ANC.

  17. I try – and sometimes succeed – in walking that fine line between my great disdain for the “wretched” corporate side of the RS, and my fondness for the good humans who work there, just as I did, and Candace, and all those named above, and many more. I still have a great respect and appreciation for the remaining good RS people, like Dave Benda and Damon Arthur and Mike Chapman, all of whom are doing the best they can with a highly imperfect situation.

  18. AJ AJ says:

    Every time I scroll through this article it makes me smile because brings to mind one of my favorite pictures of myself reading the newspaper when I was about 5. I know how old I was because it was at the cabin in Idyllwild and we sold that cabin at the beginning of WWII (gas rationing) when I was five. Anyway . . . . .I’m sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace with the paper spread on the floor in front of me VERY seriously perusing the comics. And no, it wasn’t staged and yes, I remember the occasion very well.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      My husband learned to read before kindergarten (with a lot of help for his parents and older sister) because he wanted to be able to read the funny papers (that’s what we called the comics) all by himself.

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