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An aspiring journalist tackles his most personal assignment

When I visited my grandfather in a St. Louis hospital in May of last year, I arrived at his bedside having received instructions from him to bring three things: a pen, a notebook and an envelope from Bopp Chapel, the local funeral home.

The instructions came without emotion — even matter-of-factly — reflecting a characteristic stoicism that runs in certain parts of the family. But I had no doubt what they portended. My grandfather knew his lung condition was killing him, and he was anxious to see certain things taken care of before he died. My role in helping to ease his mind was to write his obituary.


"Griff, you're the writer in the family," he told me, suddenly making me long to be the family florist, "and I want to make sure you get experience in all kinds of writing."

In between quick, shallow breaths, he launched into a deliberate and methodical review of his life. He was born in St. Louis in 1917, graduated from Washington University, married my grandmother 58 years ago, served in the Army during World War II, ran the laundry business he had inherited from his father, enjoyed playing golf in his spare time and was survived by two children and five grandchildren.

Of those five, I'm in the middle as far as age goes, but at that moment, I wished I were my 11-year-old brother. Maybe that way, someone else would have had to listen as my grandfather — his heart still beating, his mind still quick — talked about his life in the past tense like it was already at its end.

Or, maybe it was just that I wished my grandfather and I were both younger versions of ourselves. If that were true, I could still stand in his backyard as he threw pop-flies that I alternately caught and dropped with my oversized mitt. When we got sick of doing that, we could go back into the house and read newspapers or talk politics, a passion we shared from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

All of these thoughts darted in and out of my head as he talked, and they eventually welled up to form the terror that comes with impending loss. He was terrified, too, I imagine. I don't know for sure, though, because we didn't talk about it. In reciting the facts of his life, my grandfather wasted none of his precious, wheezing breaths on frivolities or on admitting to his grandson that he was scared. I, in turn, reciprocated by dutifully writing down all he told me, never giving any indication of how uncomfortable I felt.

Looking back, I'm not sure how I managed to maintain my composure, but one thing that certainly helped was that I had written obituaries before. Plenty of them. As an aspiring journalist, I had spent summers in newsrooms where obit duty often fell on my shoulders. In a single day, I could churn out a dozen of them even though each one meant a call to a newly widowed spouse or a heartbroken mother to confirm details such as middle names, Rotary Club memberships and favorite pastimes. When I had finished for the day, I would inform my editor that I had "buried my last body" — a bit of newspaper lingo I mimicked, but certainly didn't coin. When I had finished writing my grandfather's obituary, I filed it away in the funeral home envelope and promised him it wouldn't see the light of day for a long, long time. He flashed a grin and nodded when I said this, but I think we both understood I was lying.


The obituary we had written together stayed in the envelope for only five days. The day after he died, I took it out and sent it to the local newspaper, which published it along with the other obituaries. I was satisfied to see it in print, knowing it had been important to him that it was written by someone who knew him. But like any work of journalism, it failed to tell the whole story. In it was all that was needed for a respectable obituary — names, dates, events — but nowhere to be found were the pop-flies, or the hours of talking politics, or even the morning he spent in a hospital bed, telling his grandson about his life.

(Griff Witte graduated with a degree in history and is a 'Prince' editor emeritus.)

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