The Story Behind the Year's Funniest Obituary
By: John Maxwell
1 year ago
When the uproariously funny obituary for William Ziegler recently went viral, we wanted to learn more about the story behind the words. We talked to Ziegler's family members and found out how they worked together to create the perfect tribute to their father.
William Ziegler was a father of four, a wartime Navy veteran, a New Orleans firefighter, and a beer drinker. But it wasn’t the facts of his life that caught the attention of people around the world; it was the way in which his children lovingly captured his sense of humor and spirit in an obituary that has been shared all over social media and inspired hundreds of people to sign the online Guest Book for a man they never met.
Ziegler lived much of his life in New Orleans but had relocated to the Houston area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He had been ill toward the end of his life and unable to travel. After his death, his children decided that an obituary in the hometown newspaper would be the best way to notify old friends and acquaintances of his death.
“I felt like this was a way that he was able to reach people one last time,” said daughter Sharah Currier. “My youngest brother said it the best; he said, ‘I really feel like this is our last gift to him.’”
None of Ziegler’s four children had written an obituary before.
“Nobody knew what to include in the obituary. We didn’t know if there was a standard way to do it,” she said. “We really didn’t have any idea of what we were doing.”
Although he would often forward obituaries to his children that he found funny or interesting, she didn’t recall ever having a conversation with her father about what he would like to have included in his own obituary.
They did know they wanted the obituary to be humorous since that was the way their father approached life. But in the aftermath of his death, it was hard to find the humor right away.
On a flight from Houston, Texas, to his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, son Scott Ziegler began writing a list of facts about his father’s life.
“I tried to think about some of the things that would be interesting to know about him. The things that those of us who already knew him would recognize: the potted meat, his preference for a beer that we all continuously told him was disgusting,” Ziegler recalled.
“We just tried to make it something that included snippets that we knew would mean something to him,” said Currier.
The four siblings, who live in different parts of the country, passed the draft of the obituary back and forth via email for about 10 days, adding to it, and taking parts out. It became part of their grieving process, and the obituary evolved as they shared their memories.
Judge, the alcoholic dog, didn’t make an appearance until late in the writing process. He had died before the eldest of the Ziegler children was born, but as they traded stories about their father’s “retirement plan” to move to a cabin and spend his days on the porch with a three-legged dog, it spurred memories of the stories he shared with them.
“He talked about that dog our whole lives,” said Currier. “They went hunting together and drank beer together. He was very, very attached to that dog, and so it seemed proper to put a nod to him there.”
For his military service, Ziegler was highly decorated. “He was awarded a medal for valor for Vietnam, but that’s not something that he really wanted to talk about while we were growing up. It was not something that he felt comfortable sharing with us in detail,” said Currier. “We wanted to mention it, but we didn’t want to harp on it because he wasn’t like that.”
"Kidding and joking, and not really taking anything serious, that was just his way,” she said. “But we also wanted to definitely honor who he was. He was a very hardworking man. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have two or three jobs.”
Scott Ziegler gave further insight into his father’s sense of humor. “He and I used to watch shows like ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ and that type of thing where you would have a lot of fast-paced, dry humor.”
So when it came time to write about his father’s retirement from the fire department, they made a joke about his realization that it made more sense to run away from burning buildings.
“I feel like that sort of sets the tone with a certain level of self-deprecation,” Ziegler said. Making the kind of jokes his father would make conveyed more about the man than saying, “He was a fireman for 25 years and retired.”
“I am so appreciative that I had my siblings there with me,” Currier said. “I don’t know if I could ever do something like that by myself.”
When asked if he had any advice to give to other people confronted with the task of writing an obituary for a loved one, Ziegler said he wasn’t an expert, but he offered this perspective: “It’s helpful to remember that you can’t say everything about a person. And that you can get at least as much information expressed via tone as you could with facts.”
The family never expected the obituary to be as popular as it has been.
“More than anything I want to thank everyone who commented and encouraged us,” Currier said about the outpouring of condolences that the family has received from strangers across the internet. From the humorous notes left by people claiming to be the “Bob” mentioned in the obituary, to fellow firefighters who recognized William Ziegler as one of their own, she described the experience as “incredible.”
The full obituary, published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, can be read here.