When an elderly woman passed away, her children, one of whom is an Army veteran, wrote a scathing obituary. Rather than spare their mom, her kids mercilessly aired her dirty laundry. Some say it went too far, but others say you get what you deserve.
Kathleen Dehmlow passed away at 80 years old, but her secrets didn’t die with her. After living in a nursing home for the last year of her life and passing away with her sisters by her side, her children gave their mother the harsh send-off they thought she deserved with a scathing obituary, and its startling content garnered national attention.
Typically, an obituary reports a recent passing with information about the upcoming funeral, giving a brief account of the person’s life. It often presents the significant events and attributes of the deceased, noting their impact on the world around them, and acknowledging the family members they held dear. Usually, it contains all the best about a person, but what happens when there’s nothing nice to say?
That was the case for Dehmlow’s children, but rather than skip the obituary altogether, they saw an opportunity. After revealing Kathleen Dehmlow (nee Schunk) was born to Gertrude and Joseph on March 19, 1938, in Wabasso, Minnesota, the notice broke from the standard as Dehmlow’s children basically told their late mother to go to hell in her own obituary.
That was the underlying sentiment in the unquestionably blunt obituary published in the Redwood Falls Gazette. Although the population of Redwood Falls, Minnesota, is only a little over 5,000, the 105-word “memorial” received so much attention, it was removed from the small-town newspaper’s website after sparking an outcry from many readers who argued it went too far. But, nothing posted on the internet is ever really gone even when it’s deleted.
According to the obituary, Dehmlow married her husband Dennis at 19 and the couple had two children. But, in the third paragraph, we learn they were far from a happy family. “In 1962, she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California,” it reads. “She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.”
After the shocking revelation, the notice ends on a particularly harsh and bitter note, saying that she will now face judgment and “not be missed by Gina and Jay,” who “understand that this world is a better place without her.” It was just five short paragraphs, but the unmitigated anger expressed quickly launched a social media debate as the words went viral.
“At its very basic level, an obituary is a death announcement in the paper with a biography,” explained Heather Lende, author of Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer. “I don’t think there’s any reason to pass judgment. If there’s nothing nice to say, you just stick to the basic biographical outline and leave it at that.”
Kathleen’s son, Jay Dehmalo, an Army veteran and former professional boxer who changed his last name to distance himself from his family, feels differently. Even after facing backlash, Jay and Gina are glad they published what they say is the truth about their mother. “You can’t believe the dysfunction of the family. They’ll never know what we went through, but it helped us [to write this],” Jay said. “We wanted to finally get the last word.”
After Jay and Gina were abandoned, their mother went on to have a great life with her other kids, according to Jay. Meanwhile, the fraught upbringing he and Gina endured had lasting effects that carried into their adulthoods. “They have no idea what we went through, and back then, in the ’50s and ’60s, nobody talked about anything,” Jay said after Kathleen’s sister, Judy, called the obituary “nasty” and said it “hurt the family tremendously.”
“We didn’t have so much as a card from her,” Jay recalled. “She came home twice, and on one occasion, she was showing pictures of her and her kids playing cards, drinking beers,” he explained as he defended writing the obituary. “Gina and I were standing in the room, just standing there, and she didn’t even acknowledge us. It’s like we didn’t exist,” he added. “How can you do that to your own children?” Jay asked rhetorically. “You could write it all down in a book or turn it into a movie and people wouldn’t believe what we went through.”
Unnamed family members supported Jay’s recollection of his mother, calling her “unfit” and admitting she liked to “drink and party” a lot. However, not everyone in the family agrees that the sentiments should have been made public. Relative Dwight Dehmlow said that, while the facts in the notice are true, it provided an incomplete picture of Kathleen’s life, and he raised a good point. “There is more to it than this. It’s not that simple,” he said. “She made a mistake 60 years ago, but who hasn’t? Has she regretted it over the years? Yes.”
Although this wasn’t the first harsh obituary ever written, it raises a valid question: Should such jaded sentiments be published in newspapers and online when the person isn’t alive to defend themselves? Expressing the hurt felt may provide closure for those with animosity and resentment about any misdeeds the deceased committed, but is it a fair send-off when there are two sides to every story and one side can’t tell theirs? We’ll let you decide.