On Sunday 14 April 2002 at 2:44 p.m., I received the following phone call (click phone to play).
Tom was obviously devastated. So was I.
I knew we needed to create an obituary to celebrate her life. I wrote a few drafts and never having priced an obituary nor wanting to ruin my chances of getting it published, I looked up a newspaper in Dallas, Texas. I submitted the following obituary via an online form and waited for a reply with pricing details.
Maid Appleton, 3, born in Houston passed away unexpectedly in Maine on April 13 of cancer. Doctors originally said she wouldn’t live past Dec. 15, 2000 but for 484 days she proved them wrong. Her unconquerable spirit and love of life will be missed. Preceded in death by her parents she is survived by her sisters Tasha and Syder as well as Tom Britton and Collin Johnson. In lieu of flowers or donations please live your life to its fullest so that Maid’s death isn’t in vain.
The reply came and the price was north of $300.00. (I don’t recall how much, but the current rates at the Houston Chronicle are $11.81 per line).
Wow! I don’t think I went overboard and having received that quote I did some quick mental math and figured if that was a typical rate then some people easily spent thousands of dollars on an obituary.
It’s big business and it makes sense if you think about it. When grandma or grandpa die, who is going to balk at paying that much? Their posterity wants it/needs it. Think of the children. The grandchildren. Heck, even think of the great grandchildren. They need, no they want to remember g-pa and g-ma.
How can you succinctly sum up their lives in a few paragraphs when they’ve accomplished so much? You simply can’t. Therefore people will probably pay what is asked of them, even in what is likely a dark hour, even if it was expected.
But Maid Appleton was fairly young. She didn’t have offspring. She hadn’t even really had a full life yet. She was robbed of that full life, yet it still needed to be celebrated.
I whittled the obituary down, looked up the Houston Chronicle’s submittal policy and submitted it.
With a day I had an email with a price quote. It was around $100.00. Not bad.
I called them up to go over the obituary and confirm that it was correct. I supplied the credit card information. We were so close and then the representative said, “okay, now all I need is the funeral home information and once it’s confirmed, we’ll go from there.”
“What?” I asked and started to panic. I continued, “no one ever told me about that.”
“Oh, it’s common procedure. It’s to prevent people from submitting fake obituaries,” came the reply.
“People really do that?” I managed to ask incredulously, while frantically thinking about how to remain calm and not blow my cool.
“Oh yeah, before we had this policy, people would break up and to get back they’d call in a fake obituary, or if kids did something bad and their parents disowned them, the parents would put out an obituary. Then people would get calls with someone on the other end freaked out.”
“That’s horrible. I can’t believe someone would have the audacity the submit a fake obituary. What is this world coming to?” If only he knew right?
“I know. It’s sad.”
“Hmmm,” I responded, “well, as you can see this was a young child and as a friend of the family who is helping them during this tragic time, I am unfortunately unprepared and don’t have the funeral home information. Let me get with the family to get it and I’ll be in touch. Is that okay?” I hope I pulled it off.
“Sure, that’ll be fine,” he replied and we ended the call.
Crap! I didn’t know what to do. Because some pranksters out there have performed all sorts of obituary tom-foolery, I was about to pay the price. I’m sure Maid Appleton was spinning in her grave on some beach somewhere in Maine.
Then I got an idea. An idea so crazy that it just might work.
For work, I had gone to Puerto Rico. I worked with a girl (Vanessa) at a dealership. During my week there, I hung out with her and her friend Brendaliz one night. After finishing my one-week travel assignment there a buddy and I went to the Dominican Republic for a vacation. After the vacation, we stopped back in Puerto Rico and hung out with Vanessa and Brendaliz for the night.
They both loved Maid Appleton and Brendaliz (a marketing graduate) suggested I take it further and contact them.
One thing I learned about Puerto Rico while there, which was my first time, was that some people had a very strong command of the English language but with a Spanish accent, whereas, others seemed to have no English-speaking ability whatsoever. I found it really odd.
I decided to use this to my advantage.
While at work the next day (and supposedly contacting the family to determine how they wanted to go ahead with the obituary) I contacted Brendaliz and asked for a huge favor.
I explained the whole obituary situation and asked her to get me the name of a popular cemetery/funeral home there. That was the easy part and took her no time at all.
Now the hard part. I told her I would need her personal cell phone number and that for the next few hours she would need to answer the phone and answer as though she were the funeral home. I also told her to speak English well enough so that she would be understood (which would be no problem) but with enough of a Spanish accent that any questioning wouldn’t go on for very long. I told her not to act too surprised or taken off-guard by any questions as this is common procedure and as a funeral home you are accustomed to it. In addition, I told her to not answer any questions too quickly and if necessary put them on hold and email me (or use messenger) to tell me what was going on and how I could help overcome any doubts that they might have. I explained putting them on hold would probably be normal/natural as you would have to look up the file. If they asked any other questions to probe for truthfulness, I told her she could comment that it was very sad as it was a small child who died.
She was scared and I was scared too. I convinced her well enough that she agreed to it. I then called the Houston Chronicle and gave them okay to run it and gave them her phone number. For the next hour or so, we kept emailing/chatting about any progress.
Initially when I told her about this she was okay because everyone at her office was at lunch and she was the only one there. But after awhile their lunch ended and they came back. She was worried how it would look if she was taking personal calls at work and answering “Thanks for calling such-and-such Funeral Home, how can I help you.”
Time went by and still nothing. I never got a phone call either saying there were problems or asking for another phone number or email since it was outside the U.S.
It was getting later and later, to the point that I was now officially off the clock and even though I only had a five-minute drive home I didn’t want to go “dark” for that time, since of course that is when they’d call. She also needed to leave work.
We agreed to a brief separation and I told her I’d be back online as soon as I got home.
It was a mad dash home and perhaps the fastest I’d ever logged on.
When she eventually got back online she hadn’t heard anything. I explained maybe the person had to go or maybe it was forwarded to a group who specialized in calling.
I profusely thanked her and told her to do the same thing in the morning and to be on the lookout for one of three Houston area codes.
We then hung up for the night.
I was stumped. I had no idea what to expect.
The next day came and Tom and I went to the store on lunch to check out the newspaper.
Lo and behold, here is what we found in the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, May 22, 2002:
It worked! It was published. I contacted Brendaliz to see if they contacted her later that night. They never did. I believe it is their policy to weed out those who would have the audacity and the nerve to trivialize death. But I also think that when they inform callers of that, those who are faking it bow out quickly and are never heard from again. It’s possible that they saw it was a number in Puerto Rico and have a no-call policy outside the U.S. Perhaps, they just looked up the funeral home online to make sure it existed and once they saw it they were good.
I have no idea what went on (or didn’t go on) but at least the obituary was published.
Maid Appleton would be recognized.
But the obituary story doesn’t end there.
All obituaries stay up on Legacy.com for a certain amount of time at which time they are lost forever. A few days or a week before that deadline I got the email informing me of such. We now had another decision: (A) let it expire or (B) pay the fee to have it online forever. I think we each gave the same look “online forever”.
We paid the fee and now you can see the original obituary and the comments here.