'No obituary:' North Dakota nurse remembered for humble life of service

Well before Joanne Iwen of Arthur, North Dakota, died, she let everyone know she wanted no obituary written. Nothing. No photo. No life story. No fanfare. Her family respected her wishes. Kind of.

Joanne Iwen of Arthur, North Dakota, died requesting a simple funeral and obituary.
Contributed / Iwen family
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ARTHUR, N.D. — Everyone in Arthur, North Dakota, knew Joanne Iwen as the veteran church organist and nurse in town. She worked for years at the Arthur Good Samaritan Center.

"This is a funny story, too: She was born two doors down from where she lived," Abe Iwen, her son, said as the interview started.

Abe said his mother spent her life helping others and receiving no fanfare.

Her house in the center of town, where she lived for decades, would become a trauma center at all hours of the day or night.

"So, our house became that house where everybody could just come and go, and walk in the door and open the fridge," Abe said.


"The one thing people would know that know her: She had a very calming effect," he said.

There are a lot of stories out there. Like the man who stopped by the house after severing his ring finger. Joanne knew what to do, and she saved the finger for reattachment. Or the hunter, while gutting a deer, severing an artery in his leg. Joanne to the rescue.

"(She) put the knife back in (the hole), just plugged it up, and that's the best sealer of that hole would be the knife that went in, so that sealed it up," Abe said.

She did crosswords into her 90s. When Joanne died in September at the age of 92, her six children all knew the drill.

"Don't be bragging. That was a no-no. Bragging was something you just didn't do," Abe said.

Her kids say all she wanted for an obituary was the date of her birth and death.

"Just don't bother. No funeral. No obituary. Good enough," Abe said.

"When people die, you tend to deify them. You make them more than they were, and we used to tell her, 'We don't have to deify you, because you lived it,'" Abe said.


So, her kids wrote a non-obituary in place of a typical obituary, framing it like a conversation with their mother.

"But, Mom," they wrote. "(...) don't you want everyone to know you graduated from Arthur High School in 1948, St. Luke's School of Nursing in '51? ... played organ in church since you were 12?"

"This wrote itself," Abe said.

Joanne told them: "Just tell them the day I flew away," according to the non-obituary.

"That, in a nutshell, was her entire life. Whether it be helping somebody visiting (or) giving them vegetables," Abe said.

Joanne got more than one last wish. She didn't get an expensive funeral. Her ashes were buried in one of her own Ball canning jars.

"That's a little raw yet," Abe said, wiping tears.

While most churches don't toll the bell at funerals anymore, the bells at St. John Lutheran in Arthur this week rang 92 times.


It was the obituary that wasn't. Just the facts, but enough of them to realize nurse Joanne was an extraordinary mom and grandma and friend who left behind an incredible, humble legacy.

Kevin Wallevand has been a Reporter at WDAY-TV since 1983. He is a native of Vining, Minnesota in Otter Tail County. His series and documentary work have brought him to Africa, Vietnam, Haiti, Kosovo, South America, Mongolia, Juarez,Mexico and the Middle East. He is an multiple Emmy and national Edward R. Murrow award recipient.

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