Over the past couple of months, I have been immersed in Armchair Genealogy, researching John Paul Jones from the comfort of my home via the convenience of the internet. Like my newly found Genealogy pals say, online research only gets you so far before you hit the fabled ‘brick wall’.
My research on Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org had provided me with a lot of secondary sources that cited the death of JPJ, but it was imperative that I find his obituary. The reason was two-fold: An obituary, also known as a death notice, is what genealogists define as a ‘primary source’. which guarantees that my research is up to snuff. More importantly, I knew it would provide the answer I’m most compelled to find – does the man from the suitcase have any surviving relatives?
It’s important to me to find someone in John’s family that might treasure the artifacts he left behind. I hate to think that these items may have been abandoned by mistake. Of course, it’s entirely possible that they have no value to anyone but me.
A brief history of the obituary: The obituary as a standard feature of news publications started in 17th century England, but became popular in the United States in the 19th century. Published obituaries of the 19th century were typical for prominent members (translation: male members) of the community and focused on character traits. They did not detail the cause of death, preferring euphemisms to avoid the macabre. In fact, the root of the word obituary is a common euphemism for death, coming from the Latin obitus, meaning ‘departure’.
The Funeral Consumer’s Information Society, (who, in my opinion, could stand to work on their name a little…who exactly are the consumers of funerals?) cites that in the early 19th century there was a brief period of rhyming obituaries. I applaud this, as I believe all people benefit from a moment of quirky creativity in their day, especially if your job is to pen obits for the local rag. The result of the obituary verse period, aside from the neurological benefits of all those creative synapses firing, is that we are left with this little gem from the March 17th, 1917 edition of The Delaware Gazette (Ohio). A tribute to Guy Swain, who fell to his death while trying to chase a raccoon from a tree at night.
A precious one is gone,
A voice we loved is still,
A place is vacant in our home
Which never can be filled.
O Guy, it seemed so bad,
The way you had to go …
Nearing the turn of the 20th century, the focus shifted to a man’s accomplishments. Newspapers published lengthy memorials to famous figures as a way to boost circulation. P.T. Barnum’s obituary, published on April 8th, 1891 in the New York Times, ran 6347 words. I highlight P.T. Barnum as during my obituary research (which can get quite macabre if you follow too many links on the internet) I was delighted to find out that he had requested that his obituary appear in the paper before he died so that he could read it! The New York Evening Sun obligingly printed his obituary on March 24, 1891, two weeks before his actual death. His memorial in the Sun was titled The Great and Only Barnum – He Wanted to Read His Obituary – Here It Is.
Today, there are no rules. The modern obituary can be as flowery and euphemistic as their Victorian counterparts or as direct as a bumper sticker. Meet a man who embraced Shakespeare’s proposition that brevity is the soul of wit: Douglas Legler. A man whose obituary was shorter than his name.
In response to his last joke, Doug’s daughter Janet said,”I’m sure he’s laughing up there now.”
The Special Collections Division at the Nashville Downtown Library serves as a repository and research center for historic Nashville materials. They have a substantial catalog of the Tennessean, the principal daily newspaper in Nashville, on microfilm. With the help of a librarian, I loaded up the roll of microfilm of the March 31st, 1995 publication of the Tennessean.
The Social Security Death Index on Ancestry.com records the death of John Paul Jones on March 30th, 1995. One day later, his obituary was printed in the Tennessean.
He worked at the Southern Publishing Company from his early 20’s until the day he retired. He and Juanita had no children.
Woodlawn Memorial Park is one of the largest cemeteries in Nashville and is the final resting place of many of our Country Music stars such as Tammy Wynette, Little Jimmy Dickens and, most recently, George Jones. The office will provide you with a printed map of these legendary singers and songwriters if you want o make a day of it. Other notable Nashvillians include Rob Bironas, kicker for the Tennessee Titans and Owen Bradley, the father of the famous “Nashville Sound”.
As the Italian’s say, once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box; Woodlawn is also home to over 12,000 people who have never won a Grammy or broken several major NFL records. While there’s no mass-produced map printed for those souls, the wonderful staff at the Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home made one of John Paul Jones, especially for me.
John is laid to rest in the Companion Garden C, next to his wife of 57 years, Juanita Pipkin Jones.
The day was clear and bright and although the temperature was hovering around 45 degrees, the sun was warm and it wasn’t uncomfortable to sit for a spell. I brushed away the leaves on the grave markers and settled down on the grass in front of them both.
My Grandad on my mother’s side died when I was very young, and although I have faint, shifting memories of placing a wreath on a grave, I don’t remember much. I was a little older when my father’s dad passed after fighting Leukemia for many years. Both my Nan and Grandma died after my family had moved to the States, and although my parents were able to attend the funeral, I could not. I have no family graves of my own to visit, except now I have John and Juanita Jones.
Not knowing he was buried next to his bride, I had only brought a picture of John to place on the grave marker. The staff at the funeral office told me that the groundskeeper would throw it away if I left it, so I temporarily propped the picture up on the flowers I had brought. I had enough to share, so I broke the bunch in two.
I sat with them in the sunshine. I introduced myself. I asked them questions. I cried.
I tend not to think about death very often. I’ve only been to one funeral in my life, the funeral of my Gentleman Caller’s father. I feel completely unprepared for the death of a loved one…not that anyone ever can be, I suppose. As an adult, my brushes with death have been almost nonexistent – no family members, no pets I’ve considered my own. I worry that when it does happen, I will be completely destroyed with the loss.
Neither my sister or I plan to have children. My parents will never be grandparents, and I am sure that makes them sad. It makes me sad! Not sad enough to want children, but sad for the collapse of our family stories. The precious photos we do have, my Nan’s ceramic zebras I inherited, my Grandma’s charm bracelet…where will they go? Who will want them?
Perhaps I will put them in a suitcase.