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The Journal Gazette

Monday, June 11, 2018 1:00 am

Obituaries sometimes used to get the last word

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. | Washington Post

The obituary is short and decidedly unsweet, a grand total of 105 words spread over five increasingly savage paragraphs.

It starts with the birth of Kathleen Dehmlow (née Schunk) in the winter of 1938 and her marriage to Dennis Dehmlow 19 years later, all in the tiny Minnesota city of Wabasso. Two children came from that marriage – Gina and Jay.

But the death notice quickly fast-forwards to 1962, apparently a pivotal year in the soap opera of Kathleen Dehmlow's life – and her children's.

“In 1962 she became pregnant by her husband's brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California,” the obituary reads, spiraling. “She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.”

By the fifth paragraph, it is clear what her children feel about their mother – and her chances in the hereafter:

“She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgement. She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”

“Gina and Jay” could not be immediately reached for comment.

It's unclear what motivated them to write the scathing obituary, or to publish it in the Redwood Falls Gazette, the paper of record of Dehmlow's home town, a 0.8-square mile patch of Minnesota with fewer than 700 people. If the five-paragraph obituary provides a window into Kathleen Dehmlow's life, it is a jaded and incomplete one.

It's not unheard of for aggrieved family members to use the last words written about a person to get the last word, said Susan Soper, an expert on obituaries and the creator of a workbook that helps people write their own. Others have used obituaries to shed light on the damaging addictions that consumed their loved ones. The motivations of family members can be as simple as they are powerful: Catharsis, bitterness, anger.

“People don't generally speak ill of the dead,” Soper told the Washington Post. “In fact, sometimes they will ... put the best possible face on a person in the obituary and overlook whatever the misdeeds or characteristics that might be unpleasant.

“But not always,” Soper continued. “There are plenty of obituaries that have been very honest and truthful about the hurt that someone has caused – or the misdeeds they have committed.”

For example, Marianne Therese Johnson-Reddick's daughter outlined many of her mother's sins in a 2013 death notice.

“Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick born Jan 4, 1935 and died alone on Sept. 30, 2013,” the obituary read. “She is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible ... Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.”

Perhaps even more scathing than the words in the newspaper was the essay Katherine Reddick wrote in XO Jane.

According to her daughter, Johnson-Reddick beat her children during hours-long tantrums, routinely hurled whatever was in reach at them, and also encouraged them to steal from neighbors, beat each other and sleep silently on the kitchen floor while she worked as an escort. On weekend nights, she would go out on the town, drugging the younger children so they wouldn't cause trouble and forcing the older ones to subsist on dog food.

Reddick said the obituary “expressed authentic and heartfelt reflections about a woman who never resembled a mother ... .

“For myself, it took her death to no longer fear her sudden and unexpected rants of abuse,” she wrote.

“Even though I am older, happier and much gentler, I've never felt a greater sense of peace or relief than the day my brother called me singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.”