Commentary: The obituary heard 'round the world backfires
Lisa Drafall answered a cell phone call from an unknown 701 area code number after the second ring, for which she deserves a measure of credit. But the general manager of the Redwood Falls (Minn.) Gazette sounded weary in a brief conversation, perhaps owing to the attention her twice-weekly newspaper was receiving from every corner of the world.
"On what topic?" she asked when the caller from Fargo wanted to ask a few questions.
The Obit, of course, the caller said.
"No, I'm not going to make any comments. I'm not going to say anything about that," she said.
Nothing? Not even about the attention your newspaper is getting with The Obit going viral?
"I'm just not going to say anything," Drafall said.
There are bad days, and there are bad days, and Drafall and the 3,300-circulation Gazette were having a bad day Tuesday, June 5. The newspaper for the small city in southwestern Minnesota was getting worldwide attention for a paid obituary printed and run online in which an elderly woman's children wrote "she will not be missed."
The Obit was brief and savage, a no-punches-pulled literary grenade that possibly revealed family secrets and showed that a half-century isn't enough time to erase pain and hate of children who felt wronged and abandoned. Whether the target of The Obit deserved to be eviscerated in death is a question that remains unanswered, for now.
The subject of The Obit was Kathleen Dehmlow. Its five paragraphs were presumably written, submitted and paid for by the children mentioned in its words, daughter Gina and son Jay. The first two paragraphs are standard obituary fare, giving Dehmlow's birth date and place, her parents' names, her marriage information and the names of her children.
Things start to get curious in the third paragraph.
"In 1962 she became pregnant by her husband's brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California."
The fourth paragraph was more aggressive.
"She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk."
The fifth paragraph is an all-out assault.
"She passed away on May 31, 2018, in Springfield and will now face judgement. She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her."
The obituary was printed Monday and by Tuesday it had gone viral. News organizations including USA Today, the Washington Post and Fox News picked up on it, as did international newspapers and websites. The crush on the Redwood Falls Gazette was large enough that the newspaper removed The Obit from its website by Tuesday afternoon. This perhaps explains general manager Drafall's weariness.
The newspaper and the authors of The Obit were under fire Tuesday, the Gazette for printing it and the writers for attacking the departed. The irony is that if Gina and Jay wanted to embarrass their mother in death, they ended up making Kathleen Dehmlow into a sympathetic figure—and made themselves look like bitter, mean-spirited monsters.
Online comments under Dehmlow's obituary, before it was removed, were universally kind to the deceased.
"The good Lord loves you more than anyone else ever could. You are in Heaven now with your Savior. R.I.P.," wrote one person, according to USA Today.
"What a life she lived. Hope you find peace," wrote another.
The issue, of course, is whether one believes it's OK to speak ill of the dead. The majority likely frowns on it, but there are those who think the unvarnished truth is the only way to go. The truth cannot be controversial, as the cliche goes.
But what is the truth in this case?
One Dehmlow family member told the Star Tribune newspaper of Minneapolis the story is more complicated than The Obit allowed.
"The sad thing about this is there is no rebuttal," said Dwight Dehmlow of the Twin Cities, who declined to define his relationship with Kathleen Dehmlow. "There is more to it than this. It's not simple.
"She made a mistake 60 years ago, but who hasn't? Has she regretted it over the years? Yes."
If the goal of writing The Obit was to trash Kathleen Dehmlow's name and legacy, it failed. It might have felt good at the time, might've even satisfied a handful of family members. But those who didn't know Kathleen Dehmlow felt sorry for her. She's viewed as an 80-year-old woman who got dragged through the mud in death, for no reason other than to settle a score. She couldn't even defend herself.
The Obit heard 'round the world backfired.