Obit Handbook | 24 Orange Madelines

Looking For Ancestors – Robert Benton McKnight Jr.

As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be!
Prepare for death and follow me.Epitaph in Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, Alabama


Quite a few folks I know find comfort in paying homage at the cemetery. I once thought I would make those visits too because in a sense, the notion of one’s ancestors and a cemetery lawn is romantic and lingers like the heartrending stories of Confederate widows and Decoration Day in the post civil war South.

Still my extended family members were interred in out of the way, wound down places and my elders rarely if ever ventured there. A dear friend once commented that she was sure that flowers on her father’s gravesite would become ritualistic, but when she got there, he was no where to be felt. So never minded, she decided.

During summer visits with my grandparents, I only had to walk down the street to scavenge The Glenwood Cemetery. The tombstones were endlessly fascinating, the burial division between black and white confounding.

I visualized myself as a proper grownup honoring the beloved dead by visitation with an armful of white and green blossoms, taking time for a side stroll to study the grave markers, curious about the former town mothers and fathers.

That is until i woke up one day to find that my parents were side by side just down the road. Oh so close in fact that I, quite regularly, pass the Polk Memorial Gardens. I blow them a kiss and say a prayer of gratitude. My grandchildren hold their breath, headstone after headstone, as our car passes the Polk graveyard, a quaint charm that they learned while on a visit to the rural south.

Often I receive an otherworldly reply from my parents, sometimes a fully formed memory with details like a smell or the colors involving a past situation. My mother left me with two vague, but strangely instructive comments shortly before her untimely death.

While at the graveside of my uncle’s burial, she looked around and said that she admired the fresh flowers placed on graves by those paying respects. Within the same week, she advised me that her favorite dog and a current pet was the nervous wreak of a ten year old miniature schnauzer, named Molly, who I naturally took in and kept for another ten years.

I did have a consecrated moment when I granted her second wish by sprinkling Molly’s ashes near her headstone. Even so, I could not acquiesce with flowers considering my father’s comment as we walked away from her interment. He said, “I cannot believe she will have to spend eternity next to >>>>>!? And you know it was funny, because it felt true.

Another sort of prayer practice for bereavement would have to surface for me and it did. And this is where travel broadens. A visit to Pere Lachaise rewired my head when it came to observing those who went before. Descriptions of colorful lives as far as the eye can see right there in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. I realized then and there that the life story of the dearly departed is a reverence ritual.

Etched on my heart is a Krista Tippet interview with the light hearted artist and author Maira Kalman. She said that her favorite prayer did not include doctrine, but a daily reading of obituaries.

I’m with her though the obituaries available to me from my small town daily comes in a standardized format with pertinent factoids spotlighting club memberships. Ho Hum. Because of the slippage of present day literary forms, I sometimes supplement with obits from days gone by.

The David Lynch 2016 documentary Obit looks at the writers and editors of the New York Times obituaries. “There not too many of us doing this anymore,” began one writer. William McDonald edited a collection, 320 print and 10,000 digital obituaries of extraordinary people, entitled Book of the Dead. The tome is a doozy; terrific short story installments of next to nothing to do with death and everything to do with life.

Honestly written obits awaken the journey to how much it really is a wonderful life. How we are brilliant, where we fail, how we inspire, where we find solace and how we crawl back in under 1,000 words.

I find the reading to be of great comfort and note that heroic things were done yesterday just like they will be done tomorrow. Details need not be world-stage worthy, but all are sacred for observation and reflection. Being one of the few things we all share – death is worth our time.

I know a fine man who left four pages of type written instructions about his funeral. And why not? It’s only the second most important day of our life. Alas, the obit lacked his personality and we were left hanging.

24 Orange Madelines

For a brief time, my mother and her friend had a cooking store. I was still in school, but I remember my first purchase was two shiny stainless madeleine pans.

A platter of madeleines is my go to when funeral food is in order . Madeleines are so beautiful, each one a little different, just like fallen leaves on the ground.

On a sterling silver platter, sprinkled with powdered sugar, they appear as individual gifts.

2/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoons orange extract
1/2 teaspoons shredded orange peel
1 cup powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Spray pan with non-stick spray. Sift together flour and baking powder in a small bowl. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat eggs, orange extract and orange peel on high speed for 5 minutes. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Beat another 5 minutes or until thick.

Gently fold in flour mixture, then melted butter. Mix until smooth. Spoon the mixture into the cups, filling about 3/4 full. Bake approximately 8 minutes, or until edges are light brown. Cool in the pan around 1-2 minutes. Loosen cookies with a knife – then invert pan on a rack. When cool, sprinkle the tops with powdered sugar.

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