Culture

What the Final Moments of Homeless People Can Teach Us

The places where many chronically homeless people spend their final moments are somehow shocking in their banality. They are public spaces we pass on the way to somewhere else: a parking lot, a dirt path, an embankment behind a high school. These are the exact locations, respectively, of where Alberto Gonzalez, Kenneth Baker and Rachael Mae Lane (in full-term pregnancy), died in Orange County, California, in 2015 and 2016. (The photo above captures the place—Huntington Beach State Park—where 29-year-old Rafael Estrada Sanabria drowned in the Pacific last year with methamphetamine and alcohol in his system.)

Such ordinary places tell extraordinary stories of a health crisis and premature mortality amid surging death rates. In affluent Orange County, homeless deaths rose 74 percent in 2015 from the year before, reaching 188. Last year saw the toll rise to 201. Similarly, the homeless death count has risen in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and San Diego counties in recent years.

A significant contributor to the increase is drug overdose, which has replaced HIV as the primary homeless epidemic, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But another explanation is the historically unprecedented graying of our homeless population. Half of the nation’s chronically homeless are now over 50, and they suffer from accelerated aging—dying of ordinary conditions such as heart disease and cancer as many as 25 years earlier than the rest of us.

“Fifty is the new 75,” says Dr. Margot Kushel of the University of California, San Francisco, who studies homeless health and regularly treats middle-aged people for advanced geriatric illnesses.

With homeless life expectancy ranging between 42 and 52, and so many rounding this milestone, the time for meaningful intervention is fast disappearing. It’s thus more crucial than ever to shine a light on homeless people’s health, lack of medical care, and the circumstances of their deaths.

The following 10 images offer unusually intimate, eerie portraits of the places, though not necessarily the exact spots, where homeless people spent their final moments in Orange County in 2015 and 2016.

26

PEDRO SAJCHE CHAN, 31

He died after jumping from the First Street Bridge to the Santa Ana riverbed, a partially paved waterway connecting inland counties and the coast. Chan is one of eight people in 2015–2016 to die near the river, where the homeless population has mushroomed to as high as 500 people. Paul Leon, the CEO of the Illumination Foundation, a homeless assistance organization, remembers working the riverbed as a public health nurse more than a decade ago, when there were only a dozen people there. Now, Leon says, “You have a core of about 150 chronically homeless individuals. They’re the anchors.” Placing them in permanent housing will disperse the gatherings, he adds, and “the sooner you start that ball rolling, the better.”

 

3

JESSE CARRASCO, 54

He died in front of One Ice House in Santa Ana, a dry ice supplier. Carrasco was the victim of heart disease, though he also had a brain injury. He was one of the regulars who at the time slept along the business-lined street where his body was found. After his death, neighborhood workers paid tribute with candles and flowers. Sidewalks are among the everyday places in which chronically homeless people die—unlike the 80 percent of Americans who spend their final moments in hospitals and nursing homes. Other Orange County death sites in 2015 included a storm drain, a Taco Bell, the Pacific Ocean, a bus terminal, and motels. About a third of the deceased homeless people that year died in a medical facility.

 

4

RACHAEL MAE LANE, 33

She was discovered on an embankment behind San Clemente High School’s sports fields. Pregnant and at full-term, Lane died from complications of a ruptured uterus. “In the developed world? My goodness,” says Dr. Kushel. “Women dying of uterine rupture is pretty uncommon if they are getting regular health care. That’s one of the things that an OB-GYN would watch for.” Lane was originally from Appalachia, Virginia, which has a population of under 2,000. Her funeral home obituary says she was survived by three children but preceded in death by two. The infant discovered upon her death, Callie Victoria Snodgrass, was referred to in the obituary as Lane’s “unborn angel.”

 

5

LEROY JONES, 93

He was the oldest homeless person to die in Orange County in 2015, passing away in a Cypress motel from an enlarged heart and emphysema. Jones is an outlier among homeless people, whose life expectancy is far shorter than that of the general population. “Not a lot are making it past 65,” says Boston physician Travis Baggett, who treats homeless patients and researches their health. Those like Jones who live longer might offer clues to longevity for the rest of us. “The oldest homeless people are hardy survivors. They are special, different in some way.” It’s unclear if Jones’ emphysema was a result of smoking, though smoking is often a cause. Baggett calls tobacco the “overlooked addiction” among homeless people, who smoke at rates three times higher than the general population.

 

6

JERRY BODINE, 64

He died on a walkway in front of the First Methodist Church in Santa Ana, the victim of heroin and alprazolam intoxication, the latter drug often going by its brand name, Xanax, which is commonly used to treat anxiety. Medical trends across the general U.S. population, such as increased opioid abuse and reduced white male life expectancy, appeared first among homeless people, and studying death among the homeless can yield insights into the health trends of the population at large. “I have always considered the homeless to be canaries in the coal mine of public health,” explains the Boston physician Travis Baggett, who studies homeless health issues. “Life expectancy has gone down for white men for the first time ever. We saw that here. Drug overdose, we saw that here. You hold a magnifying glass up to a problem and see it earlier and more dramatically in the homeless population.”

 

7

DEREK PETER, 46

He committed suicide by hanging himself from the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach, in late 2015. His former wife, Abigail Lanin Eaves, remembers him as a tormented man who began to show signs of being bipolar just after their honeymoon in 1996. They soon after separated and divorced, though in recent years he repeatedly tried to reconnect with her and their son on Facebook. Now the executive director of a birthing center in Albuquerque and a certified midwife, Eaves was making eggs one morning when she got a call originating in Southern California. “I had this odd feeling. As soon as [the caller] said she was from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, I said, ‘Oh God, Derek’s dead.’ She said, ‘How did you know?’”

 

8

JANELLE BIXLER-MAUCH, 56

She died on a bench in front of a Lake Forest laundromat; this photo shows the markings where the outside bench presumably stood before it was removed. Her cause of death was a blood clot. In an online tribute, a friend, Julie Glasser, wrote that Bixler-Mauch worked as a property manager for 20 years, had children and grandchildren, and possessed a feisty, lively nature as well as a love for her Catholic faith, her Chihuahua, and many interests, including crafts and tattoos. Glasser lamented her friend’s loss but said, “If I remove all the selfish thoughts I can say that I am happy that God had a better plan for you … You won’t suffer another day.”

 

9

ALBERTO GONZALEZ, 62

He died of coronary artery disease in front of the wall outside a Santa Ana mercado called Tia Market. A customer who stumbled onto Gonzalez that day ran into the store and alerted store employees, who then called 911. That wall had been a gathering place for homeless people because of a shade-bearing palm tree, which store owners had removed, leaving the stump still visible in the photo.

 

10

JONATHAN POWELL, 31

Powell was discovered next to a dumpster by a restaurant employee at Katie’s Munchies, having died from a heroin overdose in Westminster. Homeless people are known to sleep in the restaurant’s dumpster area, which is mostly enclosed by a cinder block partition. While older homeless people die of common natural ailments, “The 25- to 44-year-olds are being ravaged by drug overdose,” says Dr. Baggett.

 

11

KENNETH BAKER, 43

He was found in the bushes by a jogging trail in Newport Beach’s scenic Upper Newport Bay Nature Reserve, a quiet enclave surrounded by busy streets. Baker died of an infection of his heart valve. He also suffered from cellulitis in his toe, which is a painful bacterial infection that destroys tissue and is common among homeless people, among other foot disorders such as athletes’ foot, gangrene, trench foot, and unmended broken bones. Causes include diabetes, lack of hygiene, bad shoes, injuries, and constant walking or standing. A recent Canadian study showed that two-thirds of homeless people have foot problems at any one time.

This photo essay was produced with the support of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and was originally co-published with Capital & Main and O.C. WeeklyPhotos by Gema Galiana; text by Amy DePaul.

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Culture

‘My Son is Not a Personal Problem’: How Women Veterans Are Treated as Second-Class Citizens

Major Jas Boothe is strong. The first time I met her she scooped me up and carried me, like an old-timey groom walking their bride over the threshold. That’s a bold move with a new acquaintance, but she has plenty of reasons to be self-assured: She’s a veteran, a cancer survivor, and she raised her oldest son by herself, while she was homeless.

After she spent the mid-2000s struggling to navigate the Veterans Affairs (VA) system, and finding the resources for homeless women—and particularly mothers—lacking, Boothe founded Final Salute to support other veterans struggling to convince the military that their roles as mothers and as soldiers were inseparable.

I spoke with Major Boothe about her life and the maze of challenges that women veterans face as members of the military as well as caregivers in their own families.

Kate Bahn: Can you tell us a brief overview of what you and your family went through when you were in the army and immediately after?

Jas Boothe: Life was definitely harder as a single mother in the army because it was used as ammunition against me. Everyone knows their body, and when I got cancer, I knew something was wrong. But I was told, “This is why women can’t hack it in the military,” “This is why women shouldn’t be in leadership positions,” “If you are not here training with your troops you look weak, they’re not going to respect you.” So I just said, “You know what, fine, I won’t go check on myself.” The military tells you suck it up and drive on.

It turns out I was dying. I had head, neck, and throat cancer. Good thing I was able to get to the doctor before I deployed, because there’s no telling how much worse it would have gotten a year or so later. But it’s things like that that let you know that we still have a very long way to go.

I was told, ‘This is why women can’t hack it in the military.’

There were other instances. When my 6-month-old got sick—he was born with asthma—and the day care called me and said, “Hey, can you come get him?” I said, “Of course!” But my supervisor at the time was a man, and it took me so long to explain to him why I had to go. He said, “You know what? You need to keep your personal problems in order.” And I said, “My son is not a personal problem. He’s a baby and he’s sick.” I had to explain it in a different way for him. I said, “So you know when your children get sick, your wife goes and picks them up and alleviates that concern from you? I am the wife. So I have to go.”

By the time I got to my son, since it took me so long, he was already in the ambulance headed to the hospital, and I just felt so bad. Then when I got to the hospital my supervisor called me. I thought “Oh, he’s calling to check to see how my son is doing.” But he was calling me to ask if I was going to be at work the next day.

People look on the surface of things in the military, like post-traumatic stress disorder and things like that. But we still have underlying issues of how you’re treated strictly because of your gender.

KB: After your cancer diagnosis, how did you balance your own care needs with your caregiving needs for your son? How did you navigate the mix of supports for veterans, the social safety net, help from your family?

JB: Well, I had to suffer. The cancer and Hurricane Katrina left me homeless and jobless. At that point, I did need extensive rehabilitation and medical care, but I also had a child that I needed to take care of who needed food, clothes, a roof over his head. And I knew that if I focused on my health like I needed to, I wouldn’t be employable because I would have so much follow-up care and so many appointments. So I just said, “You know what, I have to take care of my kid—that’s my 50-meter target.”

There is no balance, especially when you’re a mom, especially when you’re a wife, and definitely when you’re a soldier. And so I put my health to the side, which probably hurt me in the long run, but I felt that it was needed.

As women we sacrifice for our children, we sacrifice for our job, and sometimes we even sacrifice for our love life. Even when looking for supportive services, I was turned away from the VA because of my gender—I was told they didn’t have any supportive housing services for women and their children, and they told me to go get welfare and food stamps because I had an illegitimate child. If there was a male veteran who had a child when he wasn’t married, I can guarantee you they wouldn’t call his child an illegitimate child. They probably would just refer to him as “your son.”

It’s that subliminal way of thinking of how we see women in this country. When a male veteran has a need or issue it’s America’s fault, America has to help him. When a woman veteran has a need or issue, she failed herself: “What did you do to get yourself in that position?” It’s the same kind of rape [culture] mentality. “What were you doing over there at 3 o’clock in the morning?” or “Why were you wearing that short skirt?” We are always dressed down whenever something traumatic has happened to us. But I’ve noticed that a lot of male veterans are not re-stigmatized just based on their gender.

KB: What type of supports do you think would be helpful to other soldiers and veterans who are balancing their own care and needs as well as the care and needs of their families?

JB: I think people just need to realize that putting you in uniform does not make you a robot, it does not make you beyond need, it does not make you beyond care. And although we say we want to serve veterans equally and we need to serve veterans equally, we can’t. Men and women do not have the same make-up. [Most] men don’t need mammograms, men don’t need pap smears, men don’t need OB-GYNs. I say that because not every [VA] has an OB-GYN or a place where you can get mammograms or pap smears and things like that.

When a male veteran has an issue, it’s America’s fault. When a woman veteran has an issue, she failed herself.

KB: I would love for you to tell us about the organization you started, Final Salute. What is the goal, how did you start it, and how did you get it off the ground?

JB: I started Final Salute out of necessity. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I just would love to create a nonprofit.” I never saw myself creating a nonprofit. I saw myself as a soldier. But I also saw that women veterans were still being treated like second-class veterans, and no one was doing anything about it. Nobody was really even talking about it. I thought I was just that one soldier who slipped through the cracks. But there are tens of thousands of women veterans who are homeless. Women veterans are the fastest growing homeless population in America, and women veterans are also 250 percent more likely to commit suicide than any other women in American society.

Our mission is to provide homeless women veterans and children with vacant, suitable housing. And we have been able to raise $3 million to assist more than 36,000 women veterans. But there are still 55,000 homeless women veterans in America on any given day.

KB: How do you balance both helping women have financial security and independence while making sure they can also still be mothers and wives and family members?

JB: The key is keeping them with their children. The best thing you can do for a mother who’s struggling is keep her children with her. That way she can ensure that they’re safe, she can ensure that they’re taken care of. A lot of the VA shelters won’t do that: On my last count, I think out of 500 only 15 took in women with children. Some women are forced to give their children to friends and family members or even to the state because they can’t support them. Some women are forced to stay in domestic violence situations, because if they leave they won’t have anywhere to go with their child. Or some women sleep in their cars with their children. Homelessness isn’t just that guy on the park bench or in a tent city. Our primary means of survival are couch surfing, navigating from home to home until our welcome runs out so we can keep our children with us. We found that women thrive when their children are with them, and then once they know they are taking care of their responsibility as a mother, that allows them to focus on things like employment support or going back to school or getting that financial education and counseling they need.

We also noticed that [women need to] regain their tribes. When you are going through any situation, especially a hardship, tribe is important. In the military, we thrive in tribe because we are a unit; each member in the military becomes our family. When we watch people come into our transition home and regain that tribe and regain that sisterhood, we just see that drastic change in momentum in commitment from them.

KB: I really appreciate hearing about all your work again. It’s so inspiring, and I think it’s going to really hit a lot of people.

JB: Thank you for the opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Media and Politics

The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor

Once, at a town hall in Wisconsin, someone asked known anti-poverty crusader Paul Ryan (R-WI) the following question:

“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”

It’s a tricky one, but if you want to simultaneously cut taxes for rich people and benefits for poor people, you need to be ready for it. So, just in time for the tax debate, I’ve written a handy step-by-step guide on how to convince your constituents that a help-the-rich, whack-the-poor agenda is really what’s best for everybody:

1. Say you share the same goals.

Let’s be honest: It sounds pretty bad to say that you want to take from the poor to give to the rich. So, don’t do it! The trick here is to convince people that you’re with them on the importance of helping the poor. You just disagree about “how to achieve that goal.”

Congratulations! You’ve just turned a profound moral question about whether we should help the poor or the rich into what appears to be a minor disagreement between ethically equivalent opinions.

2. Direct attention away from what it means to be poor.

Lots of people think poor people simply don’t have enough money to meet their families’ basic needs. You know better. Tell them what the poor really need is “upward mobility,” “economic growth,” and “equality of opportunity.” Not only do these airy concepts all sound really good—who could be against any of them?—they also let you pivot away from the obvious solution: giving people the money, food, health care, and other necessities they lack.

True, Ryan’s agenda doesn’t provide any of those things. But don’t worry! If you just repeat the lie that tax cuts for the rich spur economic growth, no one will even have time to dig into the intimate connection between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity.

3. Imply that poor people’s personal failings are what’s holding them back.

You can’t pull off the enlightened nice-guy routine if you’re blaming poor people for their problems outright. You need to do it subtly. Instead of saying, “Poor people are poor because they’re lazy,” try saying, “We’ve got to change our approach … and always encourage work, never discourage work.” Never mind that most people who can work already do, or that wages are so low it’s possible (and quite common) to work full-time and still be in poverty. People are predisposed to believe that our success relative to those less fortunate is a result of our superior work ethic and talents, rather than a product of race, class, gender, and/or other forms of privilege and sheer dumb luck. The more you tap into that inclination, the more people will oppose helping those less fortunate and support imposing burdensome requirements on the Have Nots instead.

He’s fine with leaving those inconvenient details out, and you should be fine with doing so, too.

4. Choose unrepresentative examples and statistics.

Paul Ryan loves to tell people that “our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started [the] War on Poverty,” which is more or less what the official poverty measure shows. Does it bother him that the official measure excludes the effects of the very programs he says aren’t working? Nope. It shouldn’t bother you, either. You also shouldn’t feel obligated to mention the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which shows that anti-poverty programs cut poverty nearly in half and have reduced poverty by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s. After all, Ryan doesn’t!

Similarly, Ryan likes to lament the case of “a single mom getting 24 grand in benefits with two kids who,” because of the way the safety net is designed, “will lose 80 cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job.” The extraordinary rareness of this case doesn’t phase him, nor does the fact that his proposed remedies for this problem make life for that single mom—and thousands of others—much worse. He’s fine with leaving those inconvenient details out, and you should be fine with doing so, too.

5. Hammer “focus on outcomes” rhetoric.

Focusing on outcomes is popular in many fields, so this talking point—that “instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs … [we should] measure success in poverty on outcomes”—is very effective. The fact that nobody actually measures program effectiveness by how much money we spend or by the number of programs we create is irrelevant, as is the large and growing body of research showing that the safety net boosts the long-run outcomes of children growing up in poor families. As long as you contend that we currently don’t focus on outcomes, you can make our anti-poverty programs seem misguided.

There will always be those who oppose funneling money from low- and middle-income Americans to the wealthy and corporations. But if you stick to these tried-and-true steps from Paul Ryan, before you know it, you’ll have convinced a constituency (and perhaps even yourself!) that helping the rich is actually about helping the poor. Or, at the very least, people will be too confused to know the difference.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on 34justice.com. It has been edited for length and content. 

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Media and Politics

Are You in One of the 36 Million Families Whose Taxes Will Go Up Under the House Bill?

This week, without a single hearing, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” After weeks of claiming that all middle-class taxpayers would see a tax cut, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took the rare step of admitting to a lie over the weekend, telling The New York Times, “You can’t guarantee that absolutely no one sees a tax increase.” And on Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) also sought to walk back his claims, from promising tax cuts to “everyone” to assuring “average” taxpayers that they would see a cut. Now, new analysis shows just how many middle- and working-class Americans would see a tax increase under their tax plan.

According to analysis by the Center for American Progress based on Tax Policy Center data, 36 million working- and middle-class households would see a tax increase by 2027 under the House tax bill. Based on the latest version of the tax plan, 22.5 percent of tax units (tax parlance for households) in the bottom 80 percent of the income scale would see their taxes go up by 2027, at an average cost of a whopping $1,130 per family with a tax increase. With more than 159 million households in these income brackets, 36 million would end up facing a tax increase.

t17-0256Source: Tax Policy Center.

And what’s most striking is just how many of the tax increases in the bill fall on middle class and struggling families. In fact, the middle and working class will comprise the overwhelming majority of those facing tax increases under the House bill (36 million out of 45 million households facing tax increases).

So, how does this happen? The short answer is that the House tax bill is so heavily tilted toward corporations and high-income taxpayers that they have to raise taxes on many middle-class families in order to pay for it. The largest tax cut, which would lower the corporate rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, would cost about $1.5 trillion over 10 years. There is also a new tax loophole for President Donald Trump himself—cutting the top rate on “pass-through” income from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. The bill eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, which also exclusively benefits households with incomes above $200,000. And it repeals the estate tax after 5 years, which is paid by the wealthiest 0.2 percent of estates and will cost about $240 billion over the next decade.

As Rebecca Vallas and I outlined last week, this is partially offset with a series of tax cuts on the working and middle class. Some of the hardest hit will be student loan recipients: Nearly 12 million will be affected by repeal of the student loan interest deduction. Graduate students will be hit even harder, since the House tax bill proposes taxing tuition paid by their universities, which will raise taxes by nearly $10,000 on some students.

The plan also eliminates the Work Opportunity Tax Credit—an incentive for businesses that hire disabled veterans and people who have been looking for work. And, perhaps most egregiously, the House bill ends tax benefits for people with high medical expenses. This would fall particularly hard on seniors in need of long-term care and families of Alzheimer’s patients.

Importantly, the bill’s “Family Flexibility Credit”—a provision in the bill that does benefit the middle class—would expire after 5 years, even though nearly every other tax cut (corporate tax cut, the Trump “pass-through” loophole, estate tax elimination, and the elimination of the alternative minimum tax) would continue indefinitely.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell may want to tout the middle-class benefits of their tax bill, but if one thing is clear from the current tax legislation, it’s this: It’s a great deal for the wealthiest Americans and large corporations, and a lousy one for the middle and working class.

Alex Thornton, Seth Hanlon, and Alex Rowell all contributed analysis.

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Culture

The Value of Life, Measured by Word Count

My stepfather passed away a few years ago. His death came suddenly and without warning—he went into the bathroom one morning, and my mother discovered him unresponsive on the floor a short time later.

Like most people in my family, he didn’t have life insurance. He also didn’t have a bank account or assets of any kind (we don’t use the word “estate” in my clan). We made all our decisions about his memorial solely by financial cost. Direct cremation—with no casket or funeral—is the cheapest option, so that was our default choice. Even that was beyond the budget for my mother, who doesn’t have a checking account and whose sole income is a meager Social Security check. A few family members somehow managed to scrape together $1,000. I’m not sure how they did it, but my family handles money with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Then we moved on to the obituary. In our town, as in many places, obituaries aren’t free. Our local newspaper charges by the column line, with a minimum charge of $30. Photos cost extra, and large pictures and color come at a premium.

It was my job to write the obituary, and I had to weigh every word and sentence carefully. Including a photo was out of the question, and listing grandchildren by individual name was a luxury we couldn’t afford. His obituary mostly contained just the basic facts: my mother’s name, and those of his children, along with the number of grandkids. We did manage to squeeze in a dozen words to mention that he loved Elvis and left behind his beloved dog—but up until we ran the numbers at the last minute, we weren’t sure if even that brief sentence would make the cut.

When every dollar counts, so does every word.

The cost of a printed obituary can vary widely, depending on the pricing structure and location. Some newspapers charge by word count, while others calculate a price based on column inch. Funeral directors quoted by National Cremation say an average obituary can easily run between $200 and $500. Alan Mutter, who teaches media economics at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, called obituaries “among the most highly profitable advertising format in a newspaper.” Even online, self-service obituary platforms, such as Legacy.com, come at a cost. The expense catches many grieving families, including ours, off-guard. The Print Obituary Pricing Study conducted by AdPay and Legacy.com found that the actual cost of an obituary was considerably more than what consumers expected to pay, especially in large cities.

Obituaries are a distillation of the most important things about someone’s life

That’s partially because we don’t think of obituaries as an ad—we think of them as a public record. They’re a distillation of the most important things about someone’s life, stripped of its flaws until the only thing left is a gleaming statement of value. So we automatically assume that the longer the obituary, the more meaningful the person’s life must have been.

The most significant and impactful contributions in a person’s life can often be summed up in a few short yet powerful words: “He earned a Purple Heart for his valiant bravery in saving fellow soldiers,” “She dedicated herself to her work as a hospice nurse, providing comfort to patients in their final hours,” or even something as simple as, “She worked as a kindergarten teacher for 30 years.”

The longer obituaries, more often than not, don’t show more worth. But they allow for depth. They are filled with amusing yet not-quite-essential tidbits—the woman who could never balance her checkbook because her husband kept helping people pay their bills, or the man who went to trampoline class three times a week when he was 96. These are the things that help the reader feel like they truly knew the deceased person, that capture their personality and commemorate their quirks.

There weren’t many colorful bits in my stepfather’s obituary, which follows a family tradition. My grandmother lived to her mid-80s and had seven children, but her obituary contained just 40 words—less than half a word for each of her years. The tiny notice listed the number of children and grandchildren she had, but there was no room to mention how much she enjoyed watching ice skating on television, or her addiction to National Enquirer (even though she didn’t know who most of the celebrities were).

But that’s how it goes. That final recognition is a luxury reserved only for those lucky enough to be able to afford it.

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