- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

HAVERHILL, Mass. (AP) - Like the pied piper, longtime Haverhill Gazette journalist Tom Vartabedian was hoping his class on writing your own obituary would gain a local following and that his students would become “ambassadors” for obituary writing.

He had no idea his small class at the Citizens Center would gain the attention of the Wall Street Journal.

James Hagerty, an obituary writer for the Wall Street Journal’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office, learned that when it comes to confronting one’s own death, local seniors who are learning to write their own obituaries with help from Vartabedian are breathing a sigh of relief that the task won’t be left to others.

They could not wait to share tributes to their lives with Hagerty, who recently visited the senior center along with a videographer.

Hagerty said he came to Haverhill to do a story on the class after reading an Eagle-Tribune news article that appeared in an online news service he subscribes to.

“A lot of people have an aversion to writing,” Hagerty said about writing your own obituary. “It takes guts to put it on paper and let other people read it.”

Vartabedian recently completed his free three-session class at the Citizens Center and at the request of Hagerty, called his students back for an encore session. Many of his students came prepared with what they’d written and he critiqued their work.

“I couldn’t say no,” Vartabedian said. “I wanted to be part of Haverhill being showcased by one of the nation’s leading publications.”

Vartabedian said the last time this kind of attention was focused on Haverhill was in 1971, when Sharon Poole became the first girl in the country to play on a Little League team. Poole’s story became national news. Her mother, Kathleen McCharron Poole, 84, attended a previous obituary writing workshop.

Vartabedian has spent 50 years with the Gazette covering every beat and writing hundreds of “super-obits,” or special tribute obituaries. He bases each one on a person whose life he wants to highlight beyond what was said in their official obituary.

He said the idea to teach the class arose out of his unexpected confrontation with gastro-intestinal cancer that was diagnosed in February.

While dealing with his own illness, Vartabedian decided to help others put into words what they cherished about their own lives. He tells his students not to leave it up to a loved one but to write about their lives while they are still in good health.

Sixteen people showed up for his encore class, which included many people who were not able to attend all three previous sessions and those who had completed their obituaries but wanted Vartabedian to critique them.

Hagerty listened keenly to Vartabedian as he read one tribute after another, as his student writers listened proudly to their words.

Ralph Wightman, 87, told the class that when his wife died he wasn’t able to write her obituary but left it to a family member, who he said did the best they could but left out a lot of information he just couldn’t figure out how to include at the time.

“I wanted to thank my wife for putting up with me for 18 years while I was in the Navy and traveling,” Wightman said.

Barbara O’Shea said she is still in the process of editing her obituary, and that having this additional class will help.

“My children don’t really know much about the later years of my life,” O’Shea said about the reason she came to the class.

O’Shea said she was surprised to see a Wall Street Journal reporter sitting in on the class.

“It puts a spotlight on this little Council on Aging,” O’Shea said.

Vartabedian told the class that after The Eagle-Tribune published a story about his class, he started getting one phone call after another from people who wanted to be part of it.

“We are going to start it up again in the fall,” Vartabedian said. “As long as there is a need and desire, why stop?”

Vartabedian said he hopes others will be inspired and influenced to write their own obituaries and that the idea will catch on in other communities.

“The thought occurred to me that if you go back to the Armenian Genocide, more than 1.5 million people were mass slaughtered… and you have 6 million people in the Nazi death camps who didn’t have a chance to write their own obituaries and probably no one has written one for them,” he said.

In talking about the current heroin epidemic that has the region in its grip, Vartabedian said the burden of writing obituaries for young people who are dying every day from heroin overdoses often lands on the parents.

“Don’t short-change that child,” he said. “As tragic as it may be, they deserve as much of a nice obituary as everyone else.”

He lightened the mood by talking about a recent trend of including political commentary in obituaries. Quoting from an Associated Press story, Vartabedian talked about an Alabama woman who asked that “In lieu of flowers, do not vote for Donald Trump.”

“A Stoughton male said he wished Donald Trump were president, and not to vote for Hilary Clinton, while a Virginia woman facing the choice between Trump and Hilary chose death instead,” he said.

Asked if on obituary can include a sense of humor, Vartabedian encouraged it.

Julia DeVeaux, 84, noted in her obituary that she was a member of the choir at Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill.

“She did not sing great,” DeVeaux wrote, which triggered a round of laughter.

On a more serious note, which Vartabedian found interesting, DeVeaux noted that she was predeceased by two sons, Michael W. and Marque E. DeVeaux, “of heaven.”

“I tell people that my two sons are with their grandparents, who loved them dearly,” she said.

Kalister Green-Byrd, 81, arrived directly from the airport, after returning from a visit with her son Marshall (one of eight children) in South Carolina. She wanted to attend the class to thank Vartabedian for helping her write the story of her life and share it with others.

“Tom loves the city and will do anything to help people,” Green-Byrd said. “I’m so glad to see this today.”

Green-Byrd included a sentiment in her obituary that warmed the hearts of everyone in attendance.

“If you wish to remember me, do a kind deed, show love, give a smile or words of encouragement to someone who needs it. If you do what I ask, I will live forever in your heart.”

Vartabedian talked about his immediate future, saying he plans to participate in the upcoming Relay for Life Haverhill, which is June 10 and 11. He said he plans to do a lap around the track at Northern Essex Community College with his six grandchildren.

“An obituary is a testament to a life that has been lived,” Vartabedian told the class. “It’s deeds that are our true monuments… the lives we lead as individuals. And don’t think your life is any less significant than another.”

___

Information from: Eagle Tribune (North Andover, Mass.), https://www.eagletribune.com


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