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What's Wrong With an Honest, Frank Obituary?

A Personal Perspective: A eulogy for a petty, cruel tyrant.

Key points

  • Balanced obituaries could be a rich source of information for psychology.
  • It is a challenge to frankly assess the good and the bad sides of the deceased.

Obituaries typically celebrate the person’s life and avoid criticism. Why? The subject, being dead, doesn’t care. There might be survivors whose grief would be exacerbated by any criticism, so their feelings take priority. That is unfortunate in a sense because a frank obituary that recognized both good and bad would seemingly be the most interesting and culturally useful assessment of a person’s life.

Recently, I was tasked with writing the obituary for my father, and due to an odd set of circumstances, there is likely no one alive who would be bothered to hear the man criticized. Anyone who remembered him knew that he could sometimes be an asshole. But there were also many positives. This was an opportunity to write an obituary of the balanced sort, an attempt at a frank assessment and summary of a man’s life.

If large numbers of these could be produced, these would be a rich, valuable, quantifiable but fundamentally qualitative data bank for psychology research. Here is one attempt. For me, also, it was an exercise of my intellectual style, to look at issues hard from both opposing perspectives, to see both the good and the bad.

Rudolf Karl Baumeister died on April 30, 2022, at a hospice in Florida. He is survived by his children, two grandsons, and three great-grandchildren.

Rudy was born in Würzburg, Germany on December 1, 1927. A talented but spoiled child, young Rudy excelled in school and sports. His prominence in the local youth group (the Hitler Youth) led to an invitation to join the Nazi party, but his father insisted that the honor be declined—fortunately for his descendants like me, who probably would never have been born had the teenage Rudy become an official Nazi. Postwar America was not welcoming ex-Nazis among its immigrants.

World War Two started when Rudy was 12. As it ground on and the draft expanded, his father played for time by enrolling Rudy in multi-year pilot training. But soon the Luftwaffe ran out of airplanes, and Rudy entered infantry combat as one of Hitler’s child soldiers. What followed was a nightmarish weeks in which Rudy and several comrades risked immediate execution by deserting their positions at night and trying to make their way south (always remaining within 10 km of the constantly moving front, as required) so as to surrender to the Americans—but fell into Russian hands and were nearly executed by their captors.

Rudy had his 18th birthday in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp and was only released later because the Russians expected him to die from a bad case of typhus. With iron determination and youthful resourcefulness, he walked across war-ravaged Europe. In Poland, he had to walk at night, because the Polish villagers were unlikely to befriend a sickly German soldier boy. Crossing eastern Germany, he had to dodge Russian bullets one last time when scampering across the boundary into the American sector. (The Americans did not guard their side of the border.) Finally, he made it back to his home in Würzburg, only to find it had been bombed to rubble. He went to Bamberg to see the uncle with whom he had lived for several years, but in his emaciated condition the uncle did not recognize him, and young Rudy stood out on the porch for a long time bringing up memories and family facts to prove who he was until his uncle finally let him in.

A few years later, while studying economics at the University of Munich, he met Donna Daye, a young American woman aspiring to be a German teacher. The last thing her father had said to her when she departed for Europe to practice her German was “Don’t bring back any Krauts!” They married, thereby angering both families, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. The young couple had agreed not to have any children, but they revised that opinion around the time Rudy completed the naturalization process to become an American citizen, whereupon the US draft board contacted him for service in the Korean War. He was decidedly not eager for more military experience. By possible coincidence, impending fatherhood exempted Rudy from the American draft.

After some struggle to learn English, Rudy took a job with the Standard Oil Company. He spent his entire career with that company, working his way up into middle management, before retiring early at age 57. His sister wondered why he never made it to top management despite his ambition and intelligence, but that question will remain a mystery.

During his Cleveland years, he raised two children. He was a strict disciplinarian who insisted that his wife and children obey him in all matters and always defer to his superior wisdom. Parenthood did not come naturally to either Rudy or Donna, and Rudy said he especially disliked having babies around, but as the kids got older it became more tolerable. He may have especially enjoyed it when the children were 10 to 15 years old and he could share jokes with them about bowel movements and flatulence. That was a frequent theme in jocular family conversations.

Rudy demanded that his children excel in school, and both graduated at the top of very large classes in the public high school. He then paid for college. Educational success set them up well in life, and for that they are grateful. Despite the physical and emotional cruelty of the Baumeister household, which included hard slaps to the head for even slight infractions (a practice that only stopped, and rather abruptly, when his son grew as tall as Rudy), it is fair to say that Rudy was a successful parent, insofar as both his children had fine careers and long, happy marriages.

Rudy’s intelligence and his economics knowledge enabled him to save and invest wisely, and he was always thrifty, so from his humble start as a penniless immigrant he progressed to amass several million dollars in savings. He was not much given to pleasures, but he did enjoy white wine (always in moderation), skiing, and watching situation comedies. He and Donna also enjoyed traveling to novel and beautiful places, becoming quite adept at both finding frugal ways of enjoying their explorations and at writing reports of their travels that they mailed out to interested parties (who in fact were often not all that interested). At one point he obtained a mail-order certification as a minister. He and Donna founded a church, which operated for several years. It was vaguely celebratory of the divinity of nature, and it also enabled them to deduct wine purchases, travel expenses, and other substantial sums from their income taxes.

After his retirement, he mellowed out and in his late years, he came to be regarded as a friendly, nice guy. This was quite a surprise (albeit a very welcome one) to those who remembered his earlier self. His dementia progressed slowly until he fell and hit his head, after which he spent the rest of his life in a locked ward. He seemed to be happy there, often smiling even long after the possibility of any conversation was gone.

It is fitting that he died on what would have been his 71st wedding anniversary, eight months after the death of his wife, Donna. Marrying her may have been the smartest thing he ever did, perhaps apart from how he survived the war: She adored and supported him for over seven decades.

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