Headlines We're Dying to See

I really haven't thought about how my obituary will read, but I hope it's something more interesting than "Probation officer enjoyed travel," which is the headline The Detroit News used to describe a man who died the other day. While I don't have to worry about them using that particular headline for me since I don't work in criminal justice, it wouldn't be surprising if it did read "Man on probation enjoyed travel." Either way, it would be nice to think they'd have more to say about me than that.

Obviously we can't all have final headlines that describe us as the "Richest man in the world," "First woman in space," or "Only person to buy the 'Waterworld' DVD," especially since in order to have done the last one you'd have to have been legally brain dead at the time you did it. But there's something a little underwhelming about seeing a headline stating someone was a "Jazz buff and preservationist" or "Gourmet cook had legendary parties." I'm sure the music was good and the food delicious, but as summations of a life they're not exactly thrilling.

This seems to be part of a current trend in which newspapers feel compelled to describe everyone in the headline of their obituary no matter how mundane it sounds. Either this concept was the seminar to attend at last year's Great Obituary Writers' Conference in Las Vegas -- yes, there really was one -- or newspapers have started hiring writers whose mothers did a good job of driving home the adage that "If you can't say something nice, don't write an obituary about them." You know, the kind of people who would have headlined Hitler's obituary: "Noted vegetarian, art collector, and preserver of German culture."

Unfortunately we don't have much control over what's said in our obituary. All we can do is live our life and hope for the best afterwards. Unless, that is, we want to fake it, which is becoming an increasingly popular career move. A few years ago George O'Leary, coach of the Notre Dame football team, was forced to resign when it turned out he hadn't received his master's degree in education from New York University as he mistakenly claimed for, oh, 20 years. And federal judge James Ware blew his chance for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals when it turned out that a story he had told for years about his brother being killed right in front of him -- which he said made him "hungry for justice" -- never happened. Well, not to his brother, anyway.

But making up a life can be a lot of work, which is why it's nice to know you can buy one. In his book, "Leading With My Chin," Jay Leno told the story of an embarrassing incident that happened to him on Dinah Shore's TV show. Unfortunately it never happened. Well it did, but not to him. It actually happened to comedian Jeff Altman, who gladly accepted $1,000 of Leno's money in return for giving him permission to claim the story as his own. That's not a bad deal all around, as I'm sure Altman turned around and filled the newly formed void in his life by buying two quality $500 stories from a struggling, up-and-coming comic.

Try as we may, we can't be 100 percent sure what the obituary writers will say about us. Some are pretty much a given, such as David Brinkley's "TV news pioneer," or the one we'll see years from now, "Imported Gambian giant rats and spread monkeypox to unsuspecting purchasers of prairie dogs." Other obituaries remain to be seen, such as the one for Ron Campos, the bachelor on NBC's dating show For Love or Money. While it looked like he was destined to be remembered with the headline "Shared hot tub with 10 babes on TV," the revelation that he was thrown out of the Marine Corps after a drunken groping incident may change it to "Last 10 minutes of 15 minutes of fame revoked."

Recently, seven well known people got a glimpse at what will be said about them after they're gone. It happened when CNN accidentally left a group of obituary mock-ups on a page of their web site where people could stumble across them. There was one for Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, and Dick Cheney. There was also one for Bob Hope, which must have been a nice 100th birthday present for the comedian.

This isn't the first time Hope got to use Mark Twain's quote about the reports of his death being greatly exaggerated. In 1998 the Associated Press accidentally posted his pre-written obituary on their web site. When Arizona Representative Bob Stump heard about it, he promptly announced to Congress that Hope was dead. Sure the obituary included such important details as, and I quote, "Bob Hope, Tireless Master of the One-Liner, Dead at XX," but that's no reason to laugh at Stump. Hey, it could have been a reference to an obscure Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie, "On The Road to Ancient Rome," and the clever obituary writer was letting us know that Hope was twenty years old when he died.

Personally, I don't want to know what they're going to say about me. It will probably be something like "Thought he was clever." Or "Now we can list our phone number again." I just hope it's nothing pedestrian. Unless, of course, I'm hit by a bus while crossing the street. I'm a firm believer in truth in obituaries.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com.

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