Want to learn about a community? Read the obituaries
Months after joining the Daily Herald's southern Illinois editorial staff as group editor in 2016, I was still puzzling over something I frequently saw in obituaries. In obits from Harrisburg, Benton, Goreville, Shawneetown and other small rural cities ground down by several generations of economic depression, memorial donations are often directed to "family choice," instead of a church or charity.
I finally called one of the funeral home people I'd come to know in Chester, a pretty community on the Mississippi River and the hometown of Popeye creator Elzie Segar. Segar was a newspaper cartoonist who left Chester for Chicago when he was 20, and worked at the Chicago Herald (no relation) and the Chicago Evening American before he moved to King Features Syndicate in New York. There, in 1919, he dreamed up the strip Thimble Theatre, with characters like Olive Oyl and Harold Hamgravy. It was the precursor to "Popeye," who wasn't invented until 1929, when one of Segar's Thimble Theatre regulars needed a sailor to pilot his boat.
Meanwhile, over at Pechacek Funeral Home, I was told that "family choice" is usually shorthand for "give a little somethin' to the family so they can afford the funeral."
When newspaper editors find themselves working in unfamiliar territory, they have to build up knowledge quickly. A suburbanite, I graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1978, found work up north and had never been back, so in 2016 SI was only semi-familiar and much of my knowledge was out of date.
Transplanted newspaper editors try to hire a local staff, talk to a lot of people, read their own newspaper and the competition, and cultivate relationships with people you trust to give you tips and back stories.
Another excellent source is obituaries. Obit space is limited, and you can glean what people in the area prize about themselves and each other by what they choose to include.
In southern Illinois, a deceased person's love of hunting and fishing is regularly mentioned. So is being legendary in the family for making the kind of meals that would bring everybody home, time and again.
Through obituaries, I have come to see that many people work multiple jobs concurrently, just to make ends meet. I see how many native southern Illinoisans are brought back home for burial, even those who have been living elsewhere for a half century or more. You don't see that kind of loyalty everywhere.
Obits in SI almost always include the hometowns, not just the names, of surviving children and grandchildren. Of the grown children who leave the region, many more relocate in the Southern U.S. than head north to Chicago or the West Coast (the East, almost never).
That realization prompted another call. Sam Lattuca, at the Williamson County Historical Museum, explained that during the Civil War, there was so much open Confederate sympathy in southern Illinois that the Union Army moved into Marion and took over for a time. Why? Well, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, southern Illinois was being populated by farmers moving up from the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia for the untilled soil. Those loyalties were still fresh. In some areas, they still linger.
Editors understand that to make sense of the present, a better-than working knowledge of the past is crucial. Obituaries help keep that past alive.
• Renee Trappe is Southern Illinois Group Editor for the Daily Herald Media Group.