Life Wellness

Why I argued with a funeral director over an Oxford comma

He sighed and shook his head.  “I can send the obituary to the newspaper that way, but they’re not going to print it.  It’s not their style.”

We were nearing the end of a long discussion of funeral arrangements for my father.  My mother and five siblings sat along the sides of the table, their solemn faces weary from shock, tears, and long nights in the hospital.  The funeral director and I sat directly opposite one another at the heads of the table.  During most of our visit I had maintained businesslike poise, making notes about what organizations would need death certificates and how many copies.  Internally, however, that poise was interrupted by moments of stunned rage, during which I fought the irrational urge to violently upend the table.  Somehow, I felt that type of extreme action would reverse the traumatic events of the past few days.  It would erase the painful witnessing of my father’s cancerous decline towards death.

We were making final revisions to my father’s obituary.  The director had long since stopped making copies for everyone else, instead making copies only for me.  My attentiveness must have made it clear I was not going to settle for anything less than what my family and I felt would most honour my father.  I was almost ready to approve the paragraphs the funeral home had created to announce my father’s death.  One section remained under my editing pen: the part that listed the names of my father’s children.

The names were listed in birth order.  I am the fifth of six children, the “next to last.”  My siblings’ names were listed with their spouses.  Because I am not married, my name stood alone.  That part did not bother me.  What bothered me was the punctuation.  Essentially, substituting pseudonyms for my siblings, it read: “Lisa and husband Sam, Jessica and husband James, Krisytn and husband Viktor, Sarah and husband George, Emily and Scott and wife Mackenzie.”

The Oxford comma — the comma used after the next to last item in a series — was omitted (boxes, bags and furniture rather than boxes, bags, and furniture).  My grammatical preference is to include the comma in a series, but my frustration with the list of names was much deeper.  I could not be lumped in with someone else’s family.  I was me.  Just me.  An adult on her own.  I needed the statement of my father’s death to reflect that reality.

It never seemed to matter to my father whether or not I married.  A practical man, he mostly desired I be able to provide for myself.  Beyond that, however, he supported my ambition and my seeking of new experiences. He told me on more than one occasion that marriage to the right person would be wonderful, but marriage to the wrong person would be tragedy.  He valued me for me.

Losing my dad, I lost that verbal affirmation.  At the same time, I lost any semblance of still being a child.  Losing one’s parent, and finding oneself in the role of supporting the surviving parent, is a sobering and terribly grown-up place to be, especially at the age of 26.

I needed that comma.  I needed that mark on the page to show that I was on my own before my dad’s death, and even more so to show I was separate after.  Was it grief causing me to focus on something not truly important?  In some ways, probably so.  All the same, it mattered to me.  The lack of a comma felt false.

Maybe a family friend who worked at the newspaper advocated for me.  Maybe the funeral director tried to make my case.  Maybe the newspaper did not even see the comma and simply printed the obituary exactly how the funeral home sent it to them.  All I know is the final version included the Oxford comma after my name.  Did that fact change anything about the painful reality of my father’s absence and the grieving process to come?  No.  But the comma recognized that reality, and it gave me a place to start coping with it.

Flickr photo (cc) by Alex Barth