The humorist Mo Rocca loves obituaries.
He loves that for one last time, the public gets to dig deep into a person’s life, however consequential he or she may have been. So he’s coined the term “Mobituary”: a second remembrance for someone who didn’t get a fair treatment the first go-round.
His new book Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving re-memorializes those who have passed. He also writes about things — say, the late, great station wagon. Or Prussia, which he says died Feb. 25, 1947. (“Prussia’s life is the story of the transformation of an insignificant medieval territory into a major European power,” he writes.)
Rocca, a CBS Sunday Morning correspondent and a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! news quiz, started to explore the idea on a podcast called Mobituaries. He’s now expanded it into a book of essays.
“Life got me interested in death, because a good obituary is really about the life of something and someone — and not the death,” Rocca says.
On the station wagon
Well, the station wagon, for people of a certain age, was of course a beloved family vehicle. … I loved whenever my father or mother would make a wide turn, and I’d get thrown against the side. I just loved … pinballing all around, especially after a pizza party with friends. And it was a wonderful experience to have that, even though it was a death chamber in the way back. We all know that.
But it did die in 2011, but it had begun its demise long before — in 1983 when the minivan was introduced. If you can remember, the minivan was actually seen as something hot and sexy back then. So it was out with the station wagon. But it’s remarkable to think: The Ford Country Squire at one point was 19 feet long. I mean you couldn’t — there weren’t even parking spaces big enough for them.
On his interest in obituaries
My father got me interested in obituaries. He would always say the obits was his favorite section of the newspaper. And I think he loved them because he had a real sense of the romance of life — and I’m not being cute there. A good obit does feel like a movie trailer for an Oscar-winning biopic. The highs, the lows, the triumphs and the tragedies — there’s a kind of sweep and a drama about them. But not everyone has gotten the send-off they deserve — or really any send-off — and of course, there are rarely obituaries for things, for ideas, for places.
On Annette Funicello, whose 2013 death was overshadowed by that of Margaret Thatcher
Annette Funicello was beloved on the Mickey Mouse Club, and then she made the transition into movies as a grown-up in Beach Blanket Bingo, and then she suffered from multiple sclerosis and in a third act became a great advocate for people suffering from that. And I like to think of her and Margaret Thatcher, I don’t know, maybe palling around in the afterlife, or thinking of maybe a Freaky Friday reboot where they switch places. But the randomness of who ends up dying on the same day — it’s fun to write about.
On the poet Joyce Kilmer, one of the people who has a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop named after him
Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem “Trees”
Always leaves me ill at ease
You know the verse I’m speaking of,
The one where Joyce professes love
For every tree that’s ever been,
Deciduous or evergreen.
The couplets jangle every time
With singsong meter, obvious rhyme.
The sentiment, it seems, well … false,
A bit too thick with grandma’s schmaltz.
So as you’ll gather, I’m no fan
And by the way — he was a man.
On his late father
My father started playing the trumpet at the age of 50, which is the age I am now — which is an act of such extraordinary optimism. I still remember: In the cellar of our house, on the wall there were a series of Xeroxed sheets teaching you how to perfect your embouchure, a word I learned to spell early on, which is how a trumpeter forms his lips around the mouthpiece of a trumpet. It’s really hard to do. And my father didn’t think that he would end up playing at the Blue Note. He knew that he was starting late. But boy, every morning for a half an hour, he would work on those scales, on those exercises, and then for an hour every night, without fail, he would be in the cellar, and it might as well have been the Blue Note. …
He and his buddies, they formed a band called the Metrotones. Every Monday night they had a jam session; without fail, he would attend that jam session. I mean, it was an act of such love and such faith. They played a lot of retirement homes/assisted living, but every gig … was important to him, and that made a big impact on me. I mean, my father was also an extraordinarily sensitive person and treated people with dignity. I know … it’s my father and I’m idealizing him. But when I was writing this book, so many of these topics — I feel a connection with him on them.
It was a duchy. It was an empire. Prussia was anything you wanted it to be. Most importantly, it was the entity that brought us the Pickelhaube, which was the helmet with the spike, the vertical spike. And I would not want to meet that on a battlefield.
Sydney Harper and Peter Granitz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.