In 'Mobituaries,' Mo Rocca Gives People The Second Send-Offs They Deserved

Nov 6, 2019
Originally published on November 6, 2019 6:13 pm

The humorist Mo Rocca loves obituaries.

He loves that for one last time, the public gets to dig deep into a person's life, however consequential he or she may have been. So he's coined the term "Mobituary": a second remembrance for someone who didn't get a fair treatment the first go-round.

His new book Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving re-memorializes those who have passed. He also writes about things — say, the late, great station wagon. Or Prussia, which he says died Feb. 25, 1947. ("Prussia's life is the story of the transformation of an insignificant medieval territory into a major European power," he writes.)

Rocca, a CBS Sunday Morning correspondent and a regular panelist on NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! news quiz, started to explore the idea on a podcast called Mobituaries. He's now expanded it into a book of essays.

"Life got me interested in death, because a good obituary is really about the life of something and someone — and not the death," Rocca says.


Interview Highlights

On the station wagon

Well, the station wagon, for people of a certain age, was of course a beloved family vehicle. ... I loved whenever my father or mother would make a wide turn, and I'd get thrown against the side. I just loved ... pinballing all around, especially after a pizza party with friends. And it was a wonderful experience to have that, even though it was a death chamber in the way back. We all know that.

It did "die" in 2011, but it had begun its demise long before — in 1983 when the minivan was introduced. If you can remember, the minivan was actually seen as something hot and sexy back then. So it was out with the station wagon. But it's remarkable to think: The Ford Country Squire at one point was 19 feet long. I mean you couldn't — there weren't even parking spaces big enough for them.

On his interest in obituaries

My father got me interested in obituaries. He would always say the obits was his favorite section of the newspaper. And I think he loved them because he had a real sense of the romance of life — and I'm not being cute there. A good obit does feel like a movie trailer for an Oscar-winning biopic. The highs, the lows, the triumphs and the tragedies — there's a kind of sweep and a drama about them. But not everyone has gotten the send-off they deserve — or really any send-off — and of course, there are rarely obituaries for things, for ideas, for places.

On Annette Funicello, whose 2013 death was overshadowed by that of Margaret Thatcher

Annette Funicello was beloved on the Mickey Mouse Club, and then she made the transition into movies as a grown-up in Beach Blanket Bingo, and then she suffered from multiple sclerosis and in a third act became a great advocate for people suffering from that. And I like to think of her and Margaret Thatcher, I don't know, maybe palling around in the afterlife, or thinking of maybe a Freaky Friday reboot where they switch places. But the randomness of who ends up dying on the same day — it's fun to write about.

On the poet Joyce Kilmer, one of the people who has a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop named after him

Joyce Kilmer's famous poem "Trees"
Always leaves me ill at ease
You know the verse I'm speaking of,
The one where Joyce professes love
For every tree that's ever been,
Deciduous or evergreen.
The couplets jangle every time
With singsong meter, obvious rhyme.
The sentiment, it seems, well ... false,
A bit too thick with grandma's schmaltz.
So as you'll gather, I'm no fan
And by the way — he was a man.

On his late father

My father started playing the trumpet at the age of 50, which is the age I am now — which is an act of such extraordinary optimism. I still remember: In the cellar of our house, on the wall there were a series of Xeroxed sheets teaching you how to perfect your embouchure, a word I learned to spell early on, which is how a trumpeter forms his lips around the mouthpiece of a trumpet. It's really hard to do. And my father didn't think that he would end up playing at the Blue Note. He knew that he was starting late. But boy, every morning for a half an hour, he would work on those scales, on those exercises, and then for an hour every night, without fail, he would be in the cellar, and it might as well have been the Blue Note. ...

He and his buddies, they formed a band called the Metrotones. Every Monday night they had a jam session; without fail, he would attend that jam session. I mean, it was an act of such love and such faith. They played a lot of retirement homes/assisted living, but every gig ... was important to him, and that made a big impact on me. I mean, my father was also an extraordinarily sensitive person and treated people with dignity. I know ... it's my father and I'm idealizing him. But when I was writing this book, so many of these topics — I feel a connection with him on them.

On Prussia

It was a duchy. It was an empire. Prussia was anything you wanted it to be. Most importantly, it was the entity that brought us the Pickelhaube, which was the helmet with the spike, the vertical spike. And I would not want to meet that on a battlefield.

Sydney Harper and Peter Granitz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The humorist Mo Rocca loves obituaries. He loves how one last time the public gets to dig into people's lives, however consequential those people may have been. He has coined the term Mobituary. It's a second remembrance for someone who didn't get a fair treatment the first go around. His new book, "Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving," memorializes those who have passed and not just people, also places, like Prussia - date of death - February 25, 1947. Prussia's life, Mo Rocca writes, is the story of the transformation of an insignificant medieval territory into a major European power. And may you rest in peace, the station wagon. Mo Rocca is with us from New York. Good morning.

MO ROCCA: Good morning, David. Good to be with you.

GREENE: Well, it's good to have you. So you wrote that the station wagon died a tragic death in 2011, the death of a leviathan, you said, so make your case.

ROCCA: Well, the station wagon, for people of a certain age, was, of course, a beloved family vehicle.

GREENE: My age, including me. My mom and I drove all over Pittsburgh in an old station wagon.

ROCCA: And I hope you, like I, loved riding in the way back. There was no other place to be.

GREENE: Of course.

ROCCA: I loved whenever my father or mother would make a wide turn and I'd get thrown against the side. I just loved, you know, pin-balling all around, especially after a pizza party with friends. And it was a wonderful experience to have that, even though it was a death chamber in the way back. We all know that.

GREENE: Right.

ROCCA: But it did die in 2011, but it had begun its demise long before in 1983 when the minivan was introduced. If you can remember, the minivan was actually seen as something hot and sexy back then. So it was out with the station wagon. But it's remarkable to think the Ford Country Squire at one point was 19 feet long. I mean, you couldn't...

GREENE: That's a large vehicle.

ROCCA: There weren't even parking spaces big enough for them.

GREENE: No. Parallel parking was impossible. Don't learn how to drive in one of those things. What got you interested in death?

ROCCA: Life got me interested in death because a good obituary is really about the life of something - someone and not the death. And my father got me interested in obituaries. He would always say the obits was his favorite section of the newspaper. And I think he loved them because he had a real sense of the romance of life. And I'm not being cute there. A good obit does feel like a movie trailer for an Oscar-winning biopic, sort of the highs, the lows, the triumphs and the tragedies. There's a kind of sweep and a drama about them. But not everyone has gotten the send-off they deserve or really any send-off. And, of course, there are rarely obituaries for things, for ideas, for places.

GREENE: You do focus on some people, though, and some people don't get the send-off they deserve because they had the misfortune of dying on the same day as someone else, which you write about. There was Margaret Thatcher, April 8, 2013. But she died on the same day as Annette Funicello, who I'm assuming didn't get maybe what you thought she deserved. Can you start by reminding us who she was?

ROCCA: Annette Funicello was beloved on "The Mickey Mouse Club" and then she was - she made the transition into movies as a grown-up in "Beach Blanket Bingo." And then she suffered from multiple sclerosis and in a third act became a great advocate for people suffering from that. And I like to think of her and Margaret Thatcher - I don't know - maybe palling around in the afterlife or thinking of maybe a "Freaky Friday" reboot where they switch places. But the randomness of who ends up dying on the same day is fun to write about.

GREENE: I bet. Well, another part of the book I loved was you write about people who have New Jersey Turnpike rest stops named for them. And I've driven the interstate many times, and all these names sound so familiar. But one of them, Joyce Kilmer, remembered for writing a poem called "Trees." As your Mobituary, you wrote a follow-up poem to Joyce Kilmer's poem. And could you read that for me?

ROCCA: Yes. "Trees Part Two" - (reading) Joyce Kilmer's famous poem "Trees" always leaves me ill at ease. You know the verse I'm speaking of, the one where Joyce professes love for every tree that's ever been, deciduous or evergreen. The couplets jangle every time with singsong meter, obvious rhyme. The sentiment, it seems, well, false, a bit too thick with Grandma's schmaltz. So as you'll gather, I'm no fan, and by the way, he was a man.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK. I do want to get back to your father who you mentioned because, you know, your book does not have a quick, simple dedication at the front. It has an entire chapter dedicated to Marcel "Jack" Rocca, who died in 2004, your dad. Can you tell me about him?

ROCCA: My father started playing the trumpet at the age of 50, which is the age I am now, which is an act of such extraordinary optimism. I still remember in the cellar of our house on the wall there were a series of Xeroxed sheets teaching you how to perfect your embouchure, a word I learned to spell early on, which is how a trumpeter forms his lips around the mouthpiece of a trumpet. It's really hard to do. And my father didn't think that he would end up playing at the Blue Note. He knew that he was starting late. But, boy, every morning for a half an hour, he would work on those scales, on those exercises. And then for an hour every night without fail, he would be in the cellar, and it might as well have been the Blue Note.

GREENE: And he played clubs and everything, right? I mean, he was all over the place.

ROCCA: He and his buddies, they formed a band called the Metrotones. Every Monday night, they had a jam session. Without fail, he would attend that jam session. I mean, it was an act of such love and such faith. They played a lot of retirement homes, assisted living, but every gig was important to him. And that made a big impact on me. I mean, my father was also an extraordinarily sensitive person and treated people with dignity. I know I'm sounding - it's my father and I'm idealizing him, but when I was writing this book, so many of these topics I feel a connection with him on them.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN CARRICK AND GREGG STAFFORD'S "ALL OF ME")

GREENE: Mo Rocca, wonderful book, and it's great to hear about your dad.

ROCCA: Well, thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN CARRICK AND GREGG STAFFORD'S "ALL OF ME")

GREENE: Can I ask you the real burning question?

ROCCA: Yes.

GREENE: What was Prussia?

ROCCA: It was a duchy. It was an empire. Prussia was anything you wanted it to be. Most importantly, it was the entity that brought us the Pickelhaube, which was the helmet with the spike, the vertical spike. And I would not want to meet that on a battlefield.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN CARRICK AND GREGG STAFFORD'S "ALL OF ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.