Robert Gerard Hunt Stories. Commentary. Endorphins.

13May/11Off

The Lost Art Of The Long-Form Obituary

The brothers LeProwse, circa 1922: Barzillai, Glendower and Trevelian

As relatives go, Glendower LeProwse is as distant from me as a third-generation relation could be. My mother's maternal uncle died fifty-one years before I was born. He lived his brief life across the Atlantic as a native of Cornwall, England. I know very little about him, and yet I feel a meaningful connection to Great Uncle Glen, thanks to one of the lengthiest and most detailed obituaries I have ever seen.

Born in 1913 to Phillip and Asineth LeProwse, Glendower was the youngest of three brothers. Trevelyan, known informally as Trevy, was the middle child. The eldest, with the impressive moniker of Frederick J. Barzillai LeProwse, would emigrate to the United States in 1922 and marry the woman who would become my maternal grandmother. The three siblings grew up in Ludgvan on the family farm, which was christened Bar-Tre-Glen in their honor.

Those are the facts which my mother told me, and there isn't much more to report. My grandfather died in 1955, when Mom was still young enough that she hadn't thought to mine her father's knowledge of family history. Thus, Glendower is mostly a mystery to us, known only by a few photographs, the fact that he rode a motorcycle, and his tragic death at the age of 24 from tuberculosis of the bone.

Enter the obituary, a faded clipping from The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph from September of 1937. It was apparently mailed to my grandfather as a keepsake. The document is remarkable in two respects. First, it is nearly 2,000 words long. Second, despite its extraordinary length, it reveals little more about Glendower than the scant information we already knew. One might wonder how an obituary could possibly run so long without saying much about the deceased. It is possible because the obit is not a summary of Glendower's life but rather an extraordinarily detailed account of his funeral.

Just how detailed? For a start, the article includes the names of the 167 mourners, 6 pall bearers, 18 honor guard members, the undertaker and the two clergymen who were present. It concludes with verbatim transcriptions of the condolence cards attached to 48 flower arrangements. In between are all 643 words of the vicar's address. And that's not all:

The coffin was elm, with oak moldings and nickel fittings, and an engraved brass plate.

From the morbid to the mundane, Glendower's obituary tells it all. I envision a hapless young clerk of The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, his desk cluttered with a register book and a pile of floral cards, dutifully pecking away at his typewriter to meet deadline.

Ironically, the lists of mourners and floral tributes say more about my great uncle than the vicar did. His address is a generic sermon with Glendower's name plugged in and a brief reference to the extreme suffering that his death mercifully ended. The standard words of comfort and reassurance with just a hint of cautionary evangelism. Perhaps the Reverend C.H.S. Buckley wore too many hats to do much research, as the following paragraph suggests:

The hymns "O God our Help" (with the omission of the sixth verse) and "There is a green hill far away" were sung. Mr. Buckley was the organist and played the Dead March.

What with a couple hymns and a march to learn, there may not have been much time to create a customized eulogy.

And why the omission of the sixth verse of "O God Our Help in Ages Past," an early 18th Century English hymn? Furthermore, why was the omission considered notable? Would it have been commented on by Telegraph readers of the day? Hey, Enid. It says here they left out the six verse of "O God our Help." You remember how that one goes?

As it happens, the sixth verse is a little obscure, like much of the rest of the hymn:

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,

With all their lives and cares,

Are carried downward by the flood

And lost in following years.

Maybe Reverend Buckley thought the phrase "carried downward by the flood and lost" had a potentially disturbing connotation in the context of a funeral. We can only speculate.

In spite of all its minutiae, or perhaps because of it, the long-winded obituary of Glendower LeProwse achieves an effect that is largely missing from contemporary death notices. It is intimate. Today's obituaries may be personal, what with their long lists of achievements and rundowns of the deceased's preferences in sports teams, but they do not give the reader a sense of having been present at the funeral itself.

Taking the time to sit down and actually read every word of my great uncle's obituary fills my head with visions of a country church packed with family and friends mourning their untimely loss. As I run my finger down the column of names, I imagine turning around in a pew and regarding familiar faces. I see their discomfort as they grope for words to express their sorrow. Reading through the condolence card transcriptions places me amid a sea of floral arrangements. I see, again and again, the same carefully worded phrases. With deepest sympathy. In loving memory. In affectionate remembrance.

And there, standing out prominently before the others, I see a floral tribute that has been sent by someone I know:

"With deepest sympathy," from his broken-hearted brother and sister-in-law, Barzy and Mildred and cousin Jacquelyn, U.S.A.

After leaving Cornwall to settle in Pennsylvania, Frederick J. Barzillai LeProwse would return to his homeland just once, sailing across the Atlantic in 1934 with his new bride and their infant daughter. No doubt Glendower and the rest of the LeProwse clan must have held little Jacquelyn during an extended visit that lasted nearly six months. Surely none of them would have guessed that Glen, only 21, had just three years left to live. My grandfather would be unable to go back for the funeral, mourning his unspeakable loss from afar.

So it is that I have an oddly substantial connection to a great uncle I never knew. I can't tell you much about him, but I know he meant a great deal to a lot of people, and I feel as though I once mourned among them.

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