WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - It's like something you would read out of a comic book. Batman, defending Gotham City, defeats the bad guy with one swift punch to the chin.
Only you aren't reading a comic book, you are reading the newspaper, and the man you are reading about isn't a bad guy. In fact, his family and friends say he is one of the good guys.
According to his obituary in The Ledger, Stephan Merrill, 31, of Winter Haven, passed away by an uppercut from Batman on Feb. 12.
No, it wasn’t a typo or mistake. “He would have been honored to have died by an uppercut from Batman,” said his fiancée, Stephanie Vella.
Merrill died suddenly and the family didn’t have an official cause of the death when they went to Ott-Laughlin Funeral Home in Winter Haven to make funeral arrangements. And when family and friends reached the point writing the obituary, they still didn’t have a cause of death.
“Everyone was starting to get a little tense. We didn’t have a cause of death but we were told we had to have one,” said Brandon Moxam, a close friend of Merrill.
It was a long-standing policy of the The Ledger that obituaries had to include a cause of death in order to be published in the paper. According to the Editor of the Ledger, Lenore Devore, the policy changed last year and the obituary could have been published without a cause of death. In this case, the obit was approved by the advertising manager.
“I made a joke,” said Moxam, “Say the cause of death was an 'uppercut from Batman.'”
Moxam said everyone in the room including Merrill's family, fiancée and close friends, all started laughing. According to Moxam, that’s when Merrill’s dad, Larry Merrill, said, “Yeah, the cause of death was an uppercut from Batman.”
The family decided to go with it.
“The funeral director didn’t think it would fly,” said Moxam. But they sent the obituary to the newspaper with the fictional cause of death anyway.
Merrill’s close friend, Andrew Albreacht, said at first the newspaper wasn't going to publish it. Albreacht called the newspaper and explained how much it meant to the family to have the obituary written in this lighthearted way.
“It was worth it for the family. It was the only time the family was able to laugh in days,” said Albreacht, “We were all laughing, and it made the situation easier to deal with.”
The obituary was published in The Ledger on Sunday, Feb. 15.
“It’s so great that they honored his family’s wishes,” said his fiancée. Merrill’s family and friends all agreed he would have loved it. “He wouldn’t have wanted you to come across his obit and be sad. He would have wanted you to come across the obit and laugh and have your spirits lifted,” said Vella.
Merrill’s friends described his sense of humor as absurd. “He found humor in just about everything,” said Albreacht.
Not only did Merrill's obituary have a comic book reference, but his celebration of life included quite a few as well. His friends and family all wore superhero shirts to honor Merrill's love for comics. The celebration also included a Captain America's shield made from flowers and a quote on the program from one of his favorite movies, 'The Avengers.'
Vella says Merrill had qualities similar to Captain America. “Captain America was about helping others and so was Stephen. He left an impression on people if you ever came in contact with him, he was your friend.”
Merrill was diagnosed with cancer in June 2013. He went into remission in Dec. 2013, but the cancer came back in October. He was recovering from surgery that he had around Thanksgiving and was scheduled to go back to work Monday at LEGOLAND Florida in Winter Haven.
On Monday, LEGOLAND employees wore blue ribbons. Because Merrill's nickname at work was “Bread,” some of his co-workers made him a piece of bread from LEGOs and gave the creation to his family.
Merrill's family and friends can find some peace by leaving a legacy that Merrill would have found humorous.
“Anytime you lose a loved one you are overcome with emotion, and there's not much you can control (about the situation). The one thing you can control is how you honor their memory,” said Moxam.
“Hopeful that D.C. Comics will hear about his story. It would be great if they could do something nice for his family,” he said.
Read the full obituary in The Ledger here:
WINTER HAVEN - Stephen Merrill, 31, passes away February 12, 2015, due to a uppercut from Batman. He was born January 28, 1984, the son of Larry Ronald Merrill and Bridgett I. Dotson Merrill. He was in retail sales at The Big Shop in Legoland, Florida.
In addition to his parents, Stephen is survived by his fiancée, Stephanie Vella; son, Noah; and sister, Kimberly.