1. Widows don’t cry
Calling spouses and relatives of the deceased is usually one of the more enjoyable parts of the job. They’re generally eager to talk about their loved ones, and they’re often the best way into the offbeat details that make obituaries satisfying reading. One recent decedent was personally offended by the high price of beef jerky and began making his own on drying racks in the kitchen. Sadly, his closest friend told me, the results were “only passably good.” In another recent case, the son-in-law of the man the Guinness Book of World Records called “the world’s greatest trencherman” told me his hobby was getting people drunk — himself included. Eddie “Bozo” Miller boasted of regularly drinking a dozen martinis before lunch, yet he lived to age eighty-nine.
2. Obit writers aren’t bitter, resentful, no-life losers obsessed with posthumously evening the score with high achievers
Really. If the crowd of fifty or so professionals who have gathered at annual conventions are any gauge, they are a bookish yet diverse lot who appreciate well-told life stories as much as tidbits on expense account chicanery. Some, such as Andrew McKie, editor of the London Daily Telegraph’s famed obit section, are high-toned jesters who have studied philosophy and history and fell into obituary writing from academia or business. Jim Sheeler of the Rocky Mountain News, who won a Pulitzer for coverage of the families of the Iraq war dead, is a natural storyteller. His tastes run to the down and out, and he likes to boast that the longest obituary he ever wrote came from following up on the shortest death notice in the paper. Kay Powell, obits editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a reformed flower child who became an arts administrator and came to know just about everybody worth knowing in the city. Now she knows where the bodies are buried, too.
3. Obituary writers aren’t always at the bottom of the newsroom totem pole
Although smaller papers tend to use rookies, metropolitan dailies turn to experienced reporters who know their communities and can add depth to life stories. When Gayle Ronan Sims became chief obit writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004, she beat out several internal candidates for the job. At The New York Times, reporters are promoted to the obits desk from other beats.
4. Death doesn’t have to enter the equation
The British “quality” newspapers — The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Independent, substantiate the old chestnut about obituaries being about life, not death. These papers rarely mention the cause of death, focusing instead on presenting a vivid account of a lived life. American papers have an unhealthy fixation on death. It’s common for “complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” or “bile duct cancer” to show up in the story’s lede, never to resurface.
5. Only one obituary has ever garnered a Pulitzer Prize
Leonard Warren, a Metropolitan Opera baritone, dropped dead mid-performance in 1960. Sanche de Gramont (who changed his name to Ted Morgan), a young rewrite man at the New York Herald Tribune, banged out the obit in under an hour and won a 1961 Pulitzer in the Local Reporting, Edition Time, category.
6. We know how to party
The International Association of Obituarists holds an annual convention for fifty or so writers from newspapers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. In addition to being excellent drinkers, obituarists have odd hobbies, such as running literary retreats or visiting every municipality in America named Cleveland. (Those distinctions would belong, respectively, to the IAO’s founder, Carolyn Gilbert, and Alana Baranick, obituary writer for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer and lead author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers.)
7. We’re funnier than most journalists
Hugh Massingberd, who died December 25, 2007, at age sixty, is generally credited with founding the modern British obit, suffused with bile and humor. He edited the obit page at The Daily Telegraph from 1986 to 1994. Among his drolleries was this from the obit of a British knight and professional wrestler:
Although he was only 5ft 9in tall, he managed to build up his body by drinking 11 pints of milk a day for three years. The diet had been recommended to him in an exchange of letters with the famous wrestling champion, George Hackenschmidt. Hackenschmidt later told him that the quantity of milk prescribed had been a misprint.
8. We’re also better prepared than most journalists
The dean of American obit writers was Alden Whitman of The New York Times. Whitman pioneered the practice of interviewing his subjects before their death. He describes the process in depth in the preface to his collection The Obituary Book (1971). Sir Anthony Eden, the British prime minister who presided over the Suez Crisis, told Whitman he’d never given a private interview.
“But, sir, this is not an interview for now, but for the future,” Whitman said.
“‘Oh’ [Eden] replied, brightening. ‘You mean it’s for when I’m dead … In that case, do come and have tea with me at the House of Lords.’”
Whitman was not without his quirks: at times he sported a French inspector’s cape.
9. We don’t attend funerals
Since obituaries are about life, they are seldom meant to be part of the grieving process. Also, morning funerals are out of the question due to hangovers and a lack of alarm clocks. I’ve attended exactly one funeral on a professional basis since I turned pro five years ago. It was for Fred Gleason, a “friend of the paper,” who’d been murdered. It was worthwhile to see the Revolutionary War–era uniformed honor guard that attended. Gleason was a fanatical war reenactor.
More apposite than funerals are memorial services for stars of stage and screen. In New York, they are held at big Broadway theaters and attract lines around the block of fans eager to see Wynton Marsalis or Chita Rivera perform for free. The newspapers report on them as spectacles quite apart from obituaries. Plenty of fun.
10. We don’t cry either
There’s not much room for tears in the metropolitan daily obit business. It’s a business like any other, and countertransference is discouraged. The only obits that have left me thoroughly discouraged are those rare ones for young people. Rare because it is unusual to find a young person who actually merits one. Heath Ledger’s obits were pretty thin, mainly a list of roles. Even Britney Spears, whose toxic behavior inspired the Associated Press to announce recently that they have prepared her obituary, barely merits the full treatment in the sense of a career with an interesting narrative arc. But when the young person, the thirtysomething with small children, say, crosses this obit writer’s desk, he pushes the chair back and reflects for a moment on how fleeting and glorious — and unfair — life is. &