Tuesday, October 28, 2014

James Rebhorn: Signing off in style

A vital but often underestimated precursor to the funeral is the obituary. It appears in the newspaper, provides salient facts including the place and time of the funeral (or memorial service) itself, and in general serves as an announcement that one who has lately been among us, is no more.

Once taken so seriously that it tended to be a lengthy, formal (if often floridly-written) affair, the pro forma piece of writing upon which fledgling journalists typically cut their teeth has sunk, in recent years, into a muddle of execrable spelling, grammar, syntax, and content.

Among the annoying aspects of the modern-day badly-composed, often-inane obit is the overwhelming need (or so it would seem) for the writer to characterize the deceased as simultaneously (and from birth) beautiful, intelligent, kind, generous, scrupulous, philanthropic, altruistic, and compassionate. No less (if no more) than God's gift to humanity.

One with the ability to walk on water, grow a perfect garden, keep an inviting home, and cook a succulent five-course meal while maintaining a splendid sense of humor, optimistic outlook, and wholly unselfish motives. Always paying it forward, asking for nothing in return.

One who never met a stranger and from whom words of wisdom sprang like a freshet no matter what the circumstances. One who from the day they were born wanted nothing so much as to serve others regardless of race, creed, or differing views, resolve all conflict globally, mediate every dispute, and eventually bring about world peace.

In fact, so pronounced is the tendency to hose the obit down in treacle, that when folks stray off that sentiment-laden reservation and say what's really on their minds about a dead person, it makes the news.

For example:

Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick born January 4, 1935 and died alone on August 30, 2013. She is survived by six of her eight children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible. While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child, was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.

On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the afterlife reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.

Most of us have found peace in helping those who have been exposed to child abuse and hope this message of her final passing can revive our message that abusing children is unforgivable, shameless, and should not be tolerated in a "humane society." Our greatest wish now is to stimulate a national movement that mandates a purposeful and dedicated war against child abuse in the United States of America.

Ah. A fine goal, to be sure. Suffice it to say that even if Mrs. Johnson-Reddick's aggrieved offspring do not succeed in abolishing child abuse, at least they realized the rare accomplishment of producing a non-sugarcoated obituary. And how.

Enter a refreshing alternative, at least in the case of one James Rebhorn: the self-obituary.

Sort of like the death selfie, if you will -- only in words, not pictures.

Mr. Rebhorn, a character actor whose face you will no doubt recognize even if you may not be able to recall exactly what he played in, died on March 21, 2014, at the age of 65. It was melanoma that got him. 

Anticipating his demise, Mr. Rebhorn left words to be published as his obituary. And they are worth reading.

After I reproduce them here, I believe I will scratch out a rough draft of my own obituary.

Or at least put it on my To-Do List.

James Robert Rebhorn was born on September 1, 1948, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother, Ardell Frances Rebhorn, nee Hoch, loved him very much and supported all his dreams. She taught him the value of good manners and courtesy, and that hospitality is no small thing. His father, James Harry Rebhorn, was no less devoted to him. From him, Jim learned that there is no excuse for poor craftsmanship. A job well done rarely takes more or less time than a job poorly done. They gave him his faith and wisely encouraged him to stay in touch with God.

He is survived by his sister, Janice Barbara Galbraith, of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She was his friend, his confidant, and, more often than either of them would like to admit, his bridge over troubled waters. He is also survived by his wife, Rebecca Fulton Linn, and his two daughters, Emma Rebecca Rebhorn and Hannah Linn Rebhorn. They anchored his life and gave him the freedom to live it. Without them, always at the center of his being, his life would have been little more than a vapor. Rebecca loved him with all his flaws, and in her the concept of ceaseless love could find no better example.

His children made him immensely proud. Their dedication to improving our species and making the world a better place gave him hope for the future. They deal with grief differently, and they should each manage it as they see fit. He hopes, however, that they will grieve his passing only as long as necessary. They have much good work to do, and they should get busy doing it. Time is flying by. His son-in-law, Ben, also survives him. Jim loved Ben, who was as a son to Jim, especially through these last months. His aunts Jean, Dorothy and Florence, numerous cousins and their families, and many devoted friends also survive Jim. He loved them all, and he knows they loved him.

Jim received his BA at Wittenberg University and his MFA at Columbia. He was a member of Lambda Chi Alpha Nu Zeta 624, a life-long Lutheran, and a longtime member of both the AMC and ACLU.

Jim was fortunate enough to earn his living doing what he loved. He was a professional actor. His unions were always there for him, and he will remain forever grateful for the benefits he gained as a result of the union struggle. Without his exceptional teachers and the representation of the best agents in the business, he wouldn't have had much of a career. He was a lucky man in every way.

Well done,  Mr. Rebhorn -- at least, as far as writing your own obituary goes. We may not have agreed on everything, but I admire your humility and eloquence in the face of your own impending exit. Whatever else your life did or did not entail, in that one thing you managed to be an example to us all.

Rest in peace.