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Obituary writers reveal the surprising things they learn by writing about the dead

January 5, 2016
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Obituary writers reveal the surprising things they learn by writing about the dead

Article originally appeared on Business Insider

You’re going to die. In the time it takes for you to read this article, more than 1000 people will have died.

Most of those 1000 people, however, are unimportant and thus will never get a professional obituary written about their life.

Gone is the notion that obituary writers are simply interns getting practice with sentence structure.

Obituaries are serious business with dedicated death-writing professionals. For example, the writer of Elizabeth Taylor’s LA Times obituary had been crafting it for 12 years!

Ratter reached out to obituary writers all around the country to get a better understanding of the least talked about staple of most print publications.


How long have you been writing obits? Do have a special process?

KATHARINE: As a business, I began writing obits when freelance opportunities began to dry up in the late ’90s. The idea first occurred, however, when my mom died in 1993, probably the most difficult obit I’ve ever had to write. After that, I had several friends request stories about their parents. My process is simple, although stated only when I give talks. I always start by saying, “I talk to dead people…and sometimes the living.” I’m referring to the process of delving into the deceased’s life, almost a psychic endeavor, meaning I prefer to dwell on the living human being as opposed to the person who has passed. “…the living” refers to those I interview who want help memorializing themselves. As for the writing part, I go by the New York Times obit formula…well, to an extent.

NOREEN: I have been writing obituaries for eight years. Generally, I pitch provocative death notices to my editor and she either approves them or not, based on the biographical information and what we imagine might be interesting to the reader. I usually have a knack for discerning this from death notices—knowing where I might be able to go with what I already know. Sometimes I also do preliminary research on the deceased to get a sense of how significant a role they played in the world. Once my editor agrees to my pitch I contact two interview subjects: one is a family member, from whom I gather early bio details. The other one is a colleague, peer, or business partner.

FRED: I was shifted to this beat in 1992. We like to start with a resumé or a biographical sketch. We then call back a family member or personal representative and ask them other questions, verify dates etc.

ELAINE: I have been writing obits for 16 years at The Times. It has been a great run, soon to end. Tomorrow is my last day as I am taking a buyout, along with many other veteran talents here. My process is to absorb as much background info on the subject as possible—articles from news archives, books, credible online sources, and interviews. Then I try to tell a story and bring the person back to life as much as possible with a factual account of their major accomplishments, anecdotes that are germane to their story of how they got to their particular peaks and any notable valleys. I try, whenever possible, to write with humanity, even for subjects who might have some unsavory moments worth recounting.

NICK: I have been writing obituaries for the BBC website for 9 years. It is part of my job as the BBC Obituary Editor. I also produce obituaries for radio and television. I don’t have a special process but, in my view, rigorous research is the key. There are a lot of sources for journalists these days, not all of them necessarily reliable. I cross check facts to make sure they are correct. I am lucky in that the BBC has radio and TV archives stretching back 90 years so it is usually possible to find interviews with most prominent people.

What was the most difficult obit you’ve had to write? Also, the most interesting? Have you ever had to write one for someone you personally knew?

KATHARINE: In relation to the most difficult and someone I knew, I think I answered those above. But I also had a hell of a time writing about our family Labrador, Fergie, who was only four years old when we had to put her down due to a congenital hip problem that prevented her from walking. I wept like a baby writing my mom’s story and also “difficult” in another instance didn’t have to do with writing, it had to do with dealing with a client in Pakistan, a doctor, who ended up handing my material over to a magazine, and then bailing on paying me. It was awful. Nothing like arguing with someone in Pakistan over an invoice.

FRED: That’s hard to say but one that comes to mind is Hiram Holton, an outstanding African-American high school basketball player and student, who died of a rapacious brain tumor. He was 17 and the pride of his family. That was a rough one because a person shouldn’t die at that age. It’s not in the natural scheme of things. I’ve had many interesting and fascinating people as obit subjects and again  it is hard to pick a certain one. Needless to say, I’ve written about war heroes, streetcar motormen, firefighters and police officer, truck drivers, hotel night clerks, bartenders, writers, poets, actors, musicians, and collectors like Dr. Hugh Hicks, a Baltimore dentist, who collected light bulbs.  OK, I’ll give you a name because he was a close personal friend, Walter Lord, who kicked off the never-ending Titanic craze with his 1956 book, A Night to Remember.

ELAINE: Some of the most difficult obits were written on extremely tight deadlines about people I knew little about—Isaac Stern and E.L Doctorow come to mind. I have only a few hours for each, from start to finish. Ideally, I would have had several days to research and write about such major figures, but life—or death—does not always cooperate. Many of my favorite obits have been about literary figures—Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens, J.D. Salinger. I’ve occasionally written obits about people I interviewed before I was an obit writer, such as Betty Friedan.

NICK: Depends how you define difficult. Some obituaries require much more research than others. For some people there is a huge amount of information available, for others less so. It is the people for whom there is little information that take the most time, often pouring over newspaper archives for instance. Scientists can be problematical as there can often be a lot of specialist data. If you mean do I find any emotionally difficult because of the subject then no. I’ve never written an obituary for someone I knew well but have done for one or two people I have met I find them all interesting.

Do you think obit writers see humanity in a different light? If so, elaborate?

KATHARINE: Not really. Aside from the near psychic probe (and according to some clients, I’ve become pretty adept at resurrecting human beings), I use the same process I used to use as a regular contributor to the Calendar section at the LA Times when writing celebrity profiles. Celebrities are so accustomed to stock answers that reporters need to dig deep to get some really new and vital stuff. An obit is about way more than where you went to school, who you married and where you worked.

NOREEN: Not sure about other obituary writers, but I believe that I see humanity in a different light. I have tremendous respect for the life of the person I’m writing about and feel privileged to be given this chance. In a nutshell, I am even careful about using the word “obituary” instead of “obit” because I think it suggests a greater respect.

Since I am approaching people deeply grieving and sometimes in shock over the death of someone they loved, I am sensitive about how I ask my questions, sometimes assuring them they can cry freely with me, or to put off the interview until they’re up to it, or to cancel interviewing them at all. Once I gather close and often intimate details, I feel as though I have been tasked with not only carrying them around with me in my head but also sensitively turning them into stories while acknowledging these so-called stories were deeply felt experienced by the individual. As an obituary writer, I also work toward dispelling the notion that there is anything macabre in doing this kind of writing. Sometimes, regrettably, people even laugh about it or malign it in other ways. I prefer to call the obituaries I write as tiny biographical sketches or life histories. If I’m writing an older person, they tend to capture an age; I try to offer some color and rich, evocative details for my storytelling. There are many times when I am touched by what people tell me. But at the same time I need to be aware that often when someone dies they become knighted or sainted by their loved ones. I have to reach beyond platitudes or fantasies and find “the truth” as I see it about the individual. No life is without flaws or regrets.

FRED: I think all lives are interesting it’s just finding the hook to hang it on. It may be a wartime exploit or going back to college and earning a college degree after your kids were gone. I had one, years ago, of a woman who celebrated her 80th birthday by going bungee jumping.

ELAINE: I cannot speak for all obit writers, only myself. I have written about many fascinating people—many of whom were not household names—and my big takeaway is that so often one person can truly make a difference. One of my subjects invented the first bagel making machine for mass production, for instance, which blew open the market and made your corner Einstein Bagel possible. But no one knew his name. I also try to show how lives unfolded in the context of their times and to paint the broader picture, incorporate some cultural history, and tell a rich story.

You deal with death every day, does this affect you when you leave work? How do you keep it from not affecting you?

NICK: I think obit writers deal with individuals rather than the broad spectrum of humanity. I see my individual subjects differently, depending on who they are. However, whether I admire them, or dislike them, I’m a journalist and my obituary should be factual and objective. I try to steer a middle course between eulogy and character assassination. However, I might veer slightly towards one or the other, depending on how I feel about them.

KATHARINE: It’s a very uplifting job. And I only wish I dealt with clients every day! Even with all my marketing attempts with mortuaries (and I’ve about given up on those), my major business comes from the Internet, people looking for someone to write about themselves or a loved one. The majority of those who do contact me often make reference to obit sites like where amateurs (no disrespect intended) post pretty lame, boring, forgettable stories. Those who want a professionally written piece want something they can revisit and hand down to future generations, but they are too few and far between.

NOREEN: I am not affected by death; I am affected by life. Again, it is the lives I focus on not the deaths. But at the same time I am affected by the grief of others. This can be hard. But I like the fact that others sometimes move me to tears. I don’t want to not be affected by the emotions other people have about the loss of someone they loved.

FRED: Some stories get to you, especially the death of a young person or let’s say a mother who bravely battled breast cancer and leaves behind three children. But, as they say, the two things we can count on in life is death and taxes. It comes to all men. No one leaves here alive, and as George S. Kaufman wrote, “You Can’t Take it With You.” Or look at it this way, everything ends badly.

ELAINE: No. People think writing obits is morbid, but it is not, at least not for me. It’s a public service to explain why certain lives were newsworthy, why what people famous, infamous, or unsung mattered.

NICK: The short answer is, no, it doesn’t. I take what I think is a pretty realistic view about death in that it is as natural as being born. I’m sure my colleagues who report from war zones might feel differently but I am completely detached about death. Bear in  mind that, when I write about people, they are still alive. I think, in general, that western societies and individuals have become very bad about dealing with death. My view is that with all the modern technology that the health industry has, some people subconsciously think they are going to live forever and it comes as something  of a shock when they don’t. Witness the grief-porn on social media when someone dies. How can people say they grieve for someone they have never met? The Victorians were much more realistic about the subject.

What does it take to be a good obituary writer?

KATHARINE: Exactly what it took to be a good journalist/feature writer. A hell of a lot of experience, a sensitive nature and patience. I go back and forth with clients until they are 100% satisfied with the product. My only impatience springs from those who insist on certain passages that I believe subtract from a story. But that’s my problem, especially if I can’t talk them out of it. Occasionally, there’s a bit too much religiosity for my tastes, but, hey, I’m not the boss here.

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