What do we owe the unloved dead?
A dignified farewell or a deeply felt “good riddance”? Tact or candor?
Leslie Ray Charping, a Galveston, Texas, man who died Jan. 30 at 74, made a public mark in passing that reflected the private marks – both figurative and literal – that he apparently left on his family. The obituary they wrote is a gloomy meditation on what appears to have been a cruel and useless life.
“He leaves behind two relieved children … and countless other victims including an ex-wife, relatives, friends, doctors, nurses and random strangers,” read the death notice, which his adult daughter has acknowledged she wrote.
The brutally candid obit made headlines around the world and drew so many viewers that the attending funeral home’s website crashed Friday. By the end of the weekend, the send-off had been replaced with a brief just-the-dates mention on the funeral home’s tribute page.
It’s tough to read and sad to imagine the raw hatred this man engendered.
Mr. Charping’s hobbies, the biting reminiscence says, included “being abusive to his family (and) expediting trips to heaven for the beloved family pets.” At his death, from cancer, he had lived “29 years longer than expected, and much longer than he deserved.”
“No services will be held, no prayers for eternal peace, and no apologies to the family he tortured.”
Out there in the chattersphere, opinions varied as to the appropriateness of publicly excoriating the dead. Presumably, once gone to his reward (or just deserts), he is beyond criticism.
“Everyone deserves prayers,” one commenter wrote.
Yet reading this awful obit offers a painful but instructive picture of the permanent damage imposed by human cruelty. Mr. Charping’s offspring may be safe now from any injury he might inflict, but the miserable and tormented children they once were are still seeking some justice, some fairness, some order in the universe that they did not get.
There are other hints, beyond the obituary’s depiction of Mr. Charping as a violent alcoholic and unfaithful husband, that he was a less-than-stellar dad: Harris County court records published by the Houston Chronicle show that he had several convictions for assault, including scalding his then-wife with boiling water and violating a restraining order by contacting another family member and threatening her with death.
The writer of the obit has had little to add, other than a statement issued to Houston’s KTRK-TV: “I loved my father because he was my father, and his passing would not have been any less difficult had he been a good father,” said his daughter, who asked that her name not be used. “This obit was intended to help bring closure because not talking about domestic violence doesn’t make it go away.”
She added: “Although I appreciate everyone’s concern, it would have been much more appreciated at any time during my childhood.”
That’s the heart of it: the lifelong damage a terrible parent inflicts on a helpless, dependent child. If this woman sounds angry and bitter, the anger and bitterness reflect what has to have been a miserable childhood.
Mr. Charping’s family chose not to rewrite history. While I’m skeptical it will bring the peace they seek – “closure” tends to be the brass ring that’s always just beyond reach – I hope one stray remark his daughter made might provoke some thought.
And that’s when she said concern “would have been much more appreciated … during my childhood.”
Concern for a child who might be suffering at home – a neighbor’s youngster, a relative’s kids, a school friend of your child’s – is an easy thing to suppress, to dismiss with “no, not my business.”
Kids cannot divorce an abusive father, pack up and leave a neglectful mom. They can’t move to another town. If nobody helps them, they suffer.
Sadly, there are abusive parents out there: selfish bullies, sadists, sociopaths. Many – and maybe most – families cover up the truth about them, up to and including the day they die.
This family chose not to. Maybe, in making that choice, they at least did somebody else a favor.
The writer is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.