What this epic obituary can teach us about living and dying

We tend to treat death and dying as a somber and serious event, but what if it doesn't have to be that way?

  • An obituary published in Delaware for the late Mr. Rick Stein has the internet ablaze with discussions on how unique it is.
  • It stands in marked contrast to the normal, drab announcements we make when someone dies.
  • It reminds us that there are other ways to mourn than the typical all-black, dour funeral and dreary obituary that doesn't tell you much about who the deceased really was.

Think of any funeral scene in any movie you've seen. Everything is black and grey, people are silent and depressed, and it's probably raining. The headstones in the cemetery are dull and nearly identical at a distance. In the West, we tend to treat death with a very somber attitude. Taking death too lightly is seen as rude, and our rituals reflect this.

However, not everybody seems to face death in the same way. An obituary published in the News Journal has drawn a lot of attention for its unique writing style, references to Seinfeld, and a plot line that would work well in an old film noir.

Here it is in full: 

Wilmington - Rick Stein, 71, of Wilmington was reported missing and presumed dead on September 27, 2018 when investigators say the single-engine plane he was piloting, The Northrop, suddenly lost communication with air traffic control and disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Rehoboth Beach. Philadelphia police confirm Stein had been a patient at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital where he was being treated for a rare form of cancer. Hospital spokesman Walter Heisenberg says doctors from Stein's surgical team went to visit him on rounds when they discovered his room was empty. Security footage shows Stein leaving the building at approximately 3:30 Thursday afternoon, but then the video feed mysteriously cuts off. Authorities say they believe Stein took an Uber to the Philadelphia airport where they assume he somehow gained access to the aircraft.

"The sea was angry that day," said NTSB lead investigator Greg Fields in a press conference. "We have no idea where Mr. Stein may be, but any hope for a rescue is unlikely."

Stein's location isn't the only mystery. It seems no one in his life knew his exact occupation.

His daughter, Alex Walsh of Wilmington appeared shocked by the news. "My dad couldn't even fly a plane. He owned restaurants in Boulder, Colorado and knew every answer on Jeopardy. He did the New York Times crossword in pen. I talked to him that day and he told me he was going out to get some grappa. All he ever wanted was a glass of grappa."

Stein's brother, Jim echoed similar confusion. "Rick and I owned Stuart Kingston Galleries together. He was a jeweler and oriental rug dealer, not a pilot." Meanwhile, Missel Leddington of Charlottesville claimed her brother was a cartoonist and freelance television critic for the New Yorker.

David Walsh, Stein's son-in-law, said he was certain Stein was a political satirist for the Huffington Post while grandsons Drake and Sam said they believed Stein wrote an internet sports column for ESPN covering Duke basketball, FC Barcelona soccer, the Denver Broncos and the Tour de France. Stein's granddaughter Evangeline claims he was a YouTube sensation who had just signed a seven-figure deal with Netflix.

When told of his uncle's disappearance, Edward Stein said he was baffled since he believed Stein worked as a trail guide in Rocky Mountain National Park. "He took me on a hike up the Lily Peak Trail back in the 90s. He knew every berry, bush and tree on that trail." Nephew James Stein of Los Angeles claimed his uncle was an A&R consultant for Bad Boy records and ran a chain of legal recreational marijuana dispensaries in Colorado called Casablunta. Niece Courtney Stein, a former Hollywood agent, said her uncle had worked as a contributing writer for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm and was currently consulting on a new series with Larry David.

People who knew Stein have reported his occupation as everything from gourmet chef and sommelier to botanist, electrician, mechanic and even spy novelist. Police say the volume of contradictory information will make it nearly impossible to pinpoint Stein's exact location.

In fact, the only person who might be able to answer the question, who is the real Rick Stein is his wife and constant companion for the past 14 years, Susan Stein. Detectives say they were unable to interview Mrs. Stein, however neighbors say they witnessed her leaving the home the couple shared wearing dark sunglasses and a fedora, loading multiple suitcases into her car. FAA records show she purchased a pair of one-way tickets to Rome which was Mr. Stein's favorite city. An anonymous source with the airline reports the name used to book the other ticket was Juan Morefore DeRoad, which, according to the FBI, was an alias Stein used for many years.

That is one story.

Another story is that Rick never left the hospital and died peacefully with his wife and his daughter holding tightly to his hands.

You can choose which version you want to believe or share your own story about Rick with us at the Greenville Country Club on Friday, November 9, 2018 from 3:00-6:00pm.

That was unusual 

That obituary certainly wasn't a typical one. While most memorials in newspapers give you birth and death dates, cause of death, a short biography, and a list of the surviving family, Mr. Stein's epic obituary gives us a sense of who he really was in addition to the standard information by subverting our conventional ideas of how to treat an announcement of death. This was less of a tombstone in print and more of a real explanation of the man it remembers.

It is undeniable that some people will find this obituary inappropriate or not serious enough. But, as the family explains in this article about the obituary, it was their way of describing him in a way that might do him justice. It was their way to mourn.

Why do we treat death the way we do?

But there must be a reason why most of us don't write funny obituaries, right? Why we are more serious about this than other things?

Philosopher Ernest Becker argues in his book The Denial of Death that the fear of death is a motivation for a wide range of human behaviors; most importantly, behaviors related to our attempts to be remembered after we pass. He further suggests that some forms of mental illness are caused by an inability to handle death anxiety properly. Some actions that we take, like violence, are also explained as ways to have seeming control over death.

He also discusses our tendency to push ideas of death and the universe's uncaring attitude out of our minds. This perhaps explains why cemeteries are such dour places that nobody would spend any time in and why the major religions of the world have spent so much time trying to convince people that death isn't as bad as it seems while also sanctifying the rituals concerning it. We are at once trying to ignore our own mortality while also giving ourselves some control over the idea by regulating how we interact with it.

In light of Becker's ideas, the creation of a funny obituary can be seen as both an attempt to immortalize a departed loved one and as a way to reduce the anxiety felt about death. After all, how can we fear something we're laughing about? Who will forget an obituary like that anytime soon?

Are there other ways to interact with death that are a little less somber than the norm? Perhaps even healthier?

Indeed, some cultures have very different relationships with death. In Tibet, sky burials are sometimes practiced. This involves leaving the corpse of the deceased out for vultures to consume after death rituals are carried out. This is often watched by those who knew the dead and has an educational effect, as it shows that death is a natural occurrence that can be put to some good. The recent use of sky burials as a tourist attraction has been controversial, however.

The uniquely cosmopolitan culture of New Orleans gave us jazz funerals, which feature a somber march to the cemetery by mourners and a jazz band, which turns the funeral into a lively parade after the burial. A recent jazz funeral was held for David Bowie.

More recently, the idea of replacing a somber funeral with a festive "celebration of life" has become popular. Such events feature bright colors, fun stories about the dearly departed, and even open bars. They aren't just for the eccentric either; poet Maya Angelou had one. The funeral of Graham Chapman approached this when his fellow members of Monty Python attempted to eulogize him. They later showed no mercy to his ashes.

These examples show us that somber respect for the dead, a chance to grieve, and a festive celebration of their life is possible within the same ceremony. The anxiety around death can be dealt with by showing mourners that death is something that happens to all but needn't be all bad, as in the Tibetan case, or by allowing the mourners to laugh at death and see it as a cause for joyful remembrance in the latter cases.

While most of us won't opt to have an obituary as impressive as Mr. Stein's, it reminds us that death can be laughed at. While treating death, funerals, and obituaries as somber and serious occasions both allows us to grieve and enables us to keep death at arm's length, treating it as something a little less depressing and mystical can be refreshing. While losing a loved one is tragic, and we all grieve in different ways, there is no reason why we can't laugh a bit too.

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