Is What People Say Real?

Wise County, Virginia Civil War Group

I’ve been reading more obituaries lately, partly because of my main writing project, and partly because as I age, long-time friends and acquaintances are passing. Survivors put the best face on the deceased in an obituary. That is okay. I wrote a draft of my own obituary to make it easier on my survivors. Not everyone does it and that’s okay, too.

As a proof reader at the local weekly newspaper I edited the obituary section. Mostly, they needed work in terms of format, grammar and punctuation. It was easy to tell when a funeral home used a template. I tried to make them grammatically adequate and positive regarding the life of the deceased. It was a minor part of the job yet I enjoyed it. No one ever complained.

An obituary requires specific information and it should all be accurate: birth date, death date, and if married, a wedding date. Survivors are a nice addition, yet we don’t need to read the names of all the great, great grandchildren or pets. Spouse, children, parents, siblings and partners, if any, are enough. The author should mention a career although an obituary is not a resume. What the deceased did in retirement is good if they were lucky enough to live so long. The obituary should make the deceased stand out without portraying them as being too highfalutin or better than everyone else.

Instead of “devoted wife,” I’d like to read how impossible the marriage was because she was a shrew. I’d also like to hear how the husband spent all his time at the bar after work improving the cirrhosis of his liver. I don’t suppose my wishes will be granted.

Military service is typically mentioned, although is not really necessary. Uniformed service is nothing special unless one served in a combat zone. I read this in an obituary about someone I had been with twice. The header was “Another of the ‘Greatest Generation’ has passed.”

How fitting that his death came in alignment with Veteran’s Day, for he was a true patriot. He is a decorated veteran of World War II, having been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals for his actions during combat operations in the Ardennes Forest, known as the Battle of the Bulge. He was an infantryman in the 23rd Armored Infantry Battalion, 7th Armored Division, and fought across Belgium in the winter of 1944-45.

If they had mentioned it while living, I may have thanked them for their service and talked about General Anthony McAuliffe’s negotiations with the Germans in the Ardennes. McAuliffe told them “nuts,” in case you forgot or didn’t know. I might have mentioned my own trip to the Battle of the Bulge site during the 1970s.

Where this ramble is going is whether what people say about each other is real. It is as real as it can be, I believe. At the same time, I read accounts of history in which there is no agreement over simple things. Spelling of the name of a person can vary radically. Dates were not the forte of 19th Century rural communities. Everyone knew at the time when someone was born, yet when a relative made it to the county seat to have the birth recorded, time could pass and with it some of the specifics.

When it comes to public events, vagary is endemic. In the case of the 1927 lynching of Leonard Woods in Pound Gap between Jenkins, Kentucky and Pound, Virginia. There are multiple stories of what happened and depending upon to whom one listens there are many interpretations. What stands out to me is the local sheriffs did not write down a single license plate number of the hundreds of vehicles driven and parked at the site of the lynching. Sometimes people don’t want to say what happened.

I couldn’t find a Leonard Woods obituary. The text on the historical marker placed on Oct. 16 2021 will serve:

Leonard Woods Lynched — Leonard Woods, a black coal miner from Jenkins, Kentucky, was lynched near here on the night of 29-30 Nov. 1927. Officers had arrested Woods for allegedly killing Herschel Deaton, a white man from Coeburn, Virginia, and had taken him to the Whitesburg, Kentucky, jail. On the day of Deaton’s funeral, a white mob numbering in the hundreds broke into the jail and brought Woods close to this spot, where they hanged, shot and burned him. No one was ever arrested. In the aftermath, at the urging of Norfolk editor Louis Jaffé, Norton’s Bruce Crawford, and other journalists, Virginia Gov. Harry F. Byrd worked with the General Assembly early in 1928 to pass the nation’s first law defining lynching as a state crime.


From what I’ve read, these words are true. They are not the whole story and maybe that’s my point. The historical society put the best face on this murder. I want to know the rest of the story.