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Light-hearted obits more than a passing fancy, say family of 2013's funniest dead

Robin Henson

When chef Ria Pell died in late November, friends opted for an obit that matched her personality and talents, noting her "brisket could make a grown man cry," and that she "single-handedly kept liquor stores and tattoo parlors thriving in the greater metro Atlanta area."

This is the way their worlds ended, not with a bang … but a rim shot.

Some who this year left us — with a final wink — included a Mississippi foodie who enjoyed “a life-long love affair with deviled eggs,” a Wisconsin grandma better known as “Pink” who used her worn pantyhose to hang Christmas ornaments, and a fed-up Cleveland football fan who requested six Browns players act as his pallbearers so the team could “let him down one last time." 

On Oct. 15, Kansas City nonagenarian Bill Brown “finally stopped bugging everybody.” After Atlanta chef Ria Pell passed away Nov. 24, those toasting her memory may have played a tune from her favorite genres, blues, punk or jazz — anything but folk music, which “gave her a rash.”

More dearly departed, it seems, are departing drolly, having their personalities punctuate their obituaries — typically dry tallies of occupations, affiliations and surviving relations. Instead, folks like William Freddie McCullough are bidding farewell amid playful write-ups that disclose pure passions, loathsome gripes, and those singular quirks that make each of us, us.

Courtesy of Mark McCullough

The late Freddie McCullough, known for telling tall tales, was killed, according to his recent obituary: "when he rushed into a burning orphanage to save a group of adorable children. Or maybe not."

“Freddie adored the ladies. And they adored him. There isn't enough space here to list all of the women from Freddie's past. There isn't enough space in the (local) phone book. A few of the more colorful ones were Momma Margie, Crazy Pam … Spacy Stacy and Sweet Melissa (he explained that nickname had nothing to do with her attitude),” read McCullough’s obit, published in the Savannah, Ga., Morning News on Sept. 14. “Freddie was killed when he rushed into a burning orphanage to save a group of adorable children. Or maybe not. We all know how he liked to tell stories.”

That wry eulogy was penned by McCullough’s son, Mark, a filmmaker who aimed to capture his father's spirit of happy abandon. He never expected those 443 words to go viral: at last count, Mark McCullough said, nearly 1 million people had viewed the remembrance, later re-posted in Russia, England and Australia. 

“Dad was just a guy who lived by his own rules. He had fun,” McCullough said. (The family continues to eschew, even in interviews, two other staples of the traditional obit: Freddie’s age at passing and cause of death). “We want to focus on how he lived, not how he died. If dad’s obituary can influence more people to really reflect on what the person loved in life, that’s an awesome thing.”

Is this final frivolity some sort of, well, passing fancy?

For now, no — not based on the stack of closing quips published this year.

Courtesy of Mary Ellen Legay

Bill Brown and his daughter Mary Ellen Legay. In Brown's humorous obit, the family asked that donations go to the nuns who once taught Brown in grade school "because they put up with Bill .. a long time."

Into his 90s, William “Bill” Brown still flashed his effervescent personality around Kansas City, “pushing fist bumps at perfect strangers, playing boogie-woogie and other foot-tapping piano right in front of innocent people, and racing to beat other oldsters to empty chairs (which is how he tripped and broke his hip, leading eventually to his well-earned demise),” read his obituary.

True story, reports his daughter, Mary Ellen Legay.

“He was going to a meal and it looked like this older lady was going to be the one to first get to the only chair left. He was trying to tease her, just pretending to try to get it,” Legay said, explaining that the tone of her dad’s death notice matched her father’s persona.

“Any (obituary) you do with genuine respect and love is OK. It wasn’t superficial or shallow. It was meant to be humorous and appreciative of the fact that my dad always made an effort to give,” Legay said. “He always tried to uplift the people around him.”

As did the late Atlanta restaurateur Pell, whose late November obit revealed she was both a “sweet charmer” and a “dirty fighter,” a woman who “took her time ... all the time. She said what needed to be said. She taught pirates to be bad (and) skater punks to be good."

That realness of description is what Pell’s friends worked hard to etch into the eternal record, said friend Julie Pender, manager at Ria's Bluebird cafe.

“In times of grief, you can definitely shut down completely. But for Ria, for her personality, we wanted to put into words all the things she meant to us,” Pender said. “It’s hard without trivializing. But she definitely liked a good joke, liked to push it, liked to tease and be teased. We all had a healthy, honest, and loving relationship.”

This year, there were some who knew their time was short and who embraced this novel approach in point-blank fashion.

“Tom Burditt made it clear that he did not want a typical obituary,” began an October death notice about the Austin psychotherapist. 

“Instead, Tom thought folks might enjoy the profound lessons he learned in his 63 years of life. Here's his advice: If the Aggies lose, don't blame the refs, it's bad form. Don't ever act like you're hugging a girl when you're really looking over her shoulder, watching football on TV. You'll get caught,” read his obituary. “… If cancer steals your ability to swing a golf club, get a couple of friends to hold you up by the back of the belt and take that swing anyway.”

And there were others, like Mississippian Harry Weathersby Stamps, whose literary sendoffs revealed points of pride (outsmarting squirrels and his bacon-of-the-month subscription) plus earthly irritations (the TV show “Law and Order,” grape leaves, and Southerners who use the word “veranda.”)

But Stamps’ loved ones did follow one obit tradition, asking friends to support his perpetual cause.

“Finally, the family asks that in honor of Harry that you write your Congressman and ask for the repeal of Day Light Saving Time." 

Bill Briggs is a contributing writer for NBC News. Reach him on Twitter