The ghost in Bud Day’s obituary

Of the many wonderful parts of the New York Times, my favorite is the obituary section. Perhaps it’s being a pastor’s daughter, perhaps it’s that my mother’s side of the family were morticians, but I love reading a good obituary. Let’s look at one headlined “Col. Bud Day, Vietnam War Hero, Dies at 88.”

Col. Bud Day, an Air Force fighter pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War, imprisoned with John McCain in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” and defiantly endured more than five years of brutality without divulging sensitive information to his captors, earning him the Medal of Honor, died on Saturday in Shalimar, Fla. He was 88.

His death was announced by his wife, Doris.

Colonel Day was among America’s most highly decorated servicemen, having received nearly 70 medals and awards, more than 50 for combat exploits. In addition to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the highest combat award specifically for airmen.

Col. Day was a genuine hero who earned much recognition. Later we get some details on how he was tortured:

Major Day was strung upside-down by his captors, but after his bonds were loosened, he escaped after five days in enemy hands. He made it across a river, using a bamboo-log float for support, and crossed into South Vietnam. He wandered barefoot and delirious for about two weeks in search of rescuers, surviving on a few berries and frogs. At one point, he neared a Marine outpost, but members of a Communist patrol spotted him first, shot him in the leg and hand, and captured him.

This time, Major Day could not escape. He was shuttled among various camps, including the prison that became known as the Hanoi Hilton, and was beaten, starved and threatened with execution. His captors demanded information on escape plans and methods of communication among the prisoners of war, as well as on America’s air war.

In February 1971, he joined with Admiral Stockdale, then a commander and the ranking American in the prison camp, and other prisoners in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while rifle muzzles were pointed at them by guards who had burst into a prisoners’ forbidden religious service.

Great details, right? And isn’t that interesting that he was in a “forbidden religious service”? So what religion was Col. Day? And why in the world is this detail excluded from the obituary?

I’m interested in the religious views of … everyone. Whatever they are. Knowing how fully my faith in Christ informs everything, and seeing how others’ religious views inform them, it is the most important piece of information I look for in an obituary. When it’s not there, it confuses me. How could someone write up the life of an individual and leave out such an important part as their religion? It boggles the mind.

This is something of a common complaint I have, but in this case it’s also somewhat personal. I’m Lutheran, of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. So was Col. Day. I wanted to see how the Times dealt with his religion. Other than that reference to a “religious service,” it’s not.

Rev. Matthew Harrison, the president of my church body, announced Col. Day’s death with the note:

Colonel Bud Day, one of the most decorated veterans in U.S. history, died today. His pastor came up to me at the LCMS convention and told me Bud had only a few days to live. His pastor also told me a year ago that Bud was a regular in his weekly study of the Lutheran Confessions. My father-in-law had attended Morningside College in Sioux City with Day after WWII, both on the GI Bill. It’s a sad day. But I rejoice in his faith in the merits of Christ and give thanks for him.

Here’s a brief interview he gave last year relating to his faith.

Obituaries obscuring religion is oddly common. I think of this (talk about your guilt file!) 2009 obituary of Horton Foote that made no mention of his faith or the role of religion in his writing.

I even thought the role of religion in Lindy Boggs’ life was underplayed in various obituaries. She was an ambassador to the Vatican, and this was mentioned, but the type of people who become ambassador to the Vatican are the type of people for whom religion plays more than just a passing mention. Here’s the Associated Press obituary. Here’s the Washington Post‘s. Marc Thiessen, also of the Post, noticed that his paper completely ignored something else:

The Post obituary for the late congresswoman and ambassador Lindy Boggs noted her important role in the struggle for civil rights. But the paper entirely left out one of the defining characteristics of her storied political career:

Lindy Boggs was a tireless champion of rights for unborn children.

You can read his column here.

There must be something I’m missing because I don’t understand the journalistic reason for obscuring, downplaying or downright ignoring the deceased’s religion in his or her obituary. Thoughts?

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Especially since obits are supposed to tell you where the funeral is going to be, which usually necessitates talking about religion. It’s also supposed to give you some clues about what’s acceptable when sending condolences.

    I conclude that in recent years, obituary writers either think that religion is unimportant (although usually it’s included in basic biographical information), that people desire to hide their religion from obituary readers, or that it will somehow offend people to know that X or Y did or didn’t attend this or that church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or coven.

  • http://www.soundshoremedia.com/ ejswensson

    God bless you, Mollie for writing this. I knew you were Lutheran but until know I did not know you are a PK. More importantly, I did not know Bud Day was Lutheran.

    I was ordained a pastor in the Lutheran Church so I am a bit biased. However, I went to journalism school before seminary, and always kept up on communications. I now manage church and other non profits online activity. In other words I see communications all day five days a week at least. So I think that even though I am biased I can venture an educated guess why this and other obituaries do not mention any specifics about religion if the person was a Christian. It isn’t cool. Now that journalists no longer have to be unbiased and have freedom to write the way they want, the last thing they are going to do.

  • Nils

    Thanks for this article, Mollie. It seems to me that general obits, that is, those not written by or in cooperation with the family, seem to skim over the issue of religious affiliation completely. Perhaps, as ejswensson says below, it’s just not cool. But then again, we Christians have never been “cool,” so perhaps it’s just par for the course.


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