The Art of the Obituary II

What is this woman's life story? How can that story be used as an obituary?

What is this womans life story? How can that story be used as an obituary?

When I started out in the newspaper business, it was during the time of cut-and-paste, linotype and wax machines. Usually, newspaper employees in small towns wore many hats, so a person who helped to layout a weekly newspaper also wrote when production time was down. This is how I began to write for newspapers, and one of my assignments included obituaries.

Usually, a family member would walk through the door or call with the copy for an obituary. This part of the assignment was tough, as family-generated obituaries usually went to the extremes. Either the writer did not include enough information, or the obituary overflowed with flowery adjectives. Adding to a sparse obituary, though, was much tougher than cutting one.

The important issue with the obituary — other than including the “who, what, how, where and why” of the piece, is the length. That obituary needs to fit into the obituary column, alongside other stories and advertisements. How does the obit writer choose whom to do and in what order?

In most cases — especially in a small weekly local paper — the obit writer or newspaper publisher would include all local obituaries. Not to do so would be suicidal. And, in most cases, those obituaries would run in alphabetical order by surname. But, in large city papers, the routine is a bit different, as mentioned previously. Further, most smaller town newspapers would hardly dream of writing an obituary in advance, as was Alden Whitman’s job. Through his unique position as obituary writer for The New York Times, he learned:

“It [the obituary] is the recital of the main features of a life and the person who led it; it should be constructed as a whole and written with grace, capturing, ideally, its subject’s unique flavor. An obit is a form of biography, of course, yet it is not a biography, which is ordinarily quite detailed and which usually takes a point of view. A good obit should not be a partisan document. Indeed, it ought to be as dispassionate and as many-sided as possible, telling what the person thought of himself, what his friends thought, and what his critics had to contribute. This is not so easy as it sounds, because any obit writer inevitably comes to like some subjects better than others. The trick is not to let this show.”

When writing an obituary in advance, Whitman had valuable resources he could use, such as the newspaper’s morgue file, editorial reference materials and the person who was the subject of the obituary. Whitman answered the question on whether he felt ghoulish about these interviews. He stated:

“Only the young are immortal. Elderly people have reconciled themselves to mortality and are thus often willing to look back over their lives with a mixture of pride, candor, detachment, and even amusement…The only person who has asked for questions in advance and how has submitted written replies is Vladimir Nabokov. But after handing me his responses, all meticulously types, the author of Lolita and Ada fell to talking most of an afternoon about himself, his adventures in America, and his work…I have a recollection, too, of Graham Greene meeting me at the door of his Paris flat and saying, “Oh, so you’re the young man who’s come to write my obituary, are you?” and then of an engaging conversation about his novels and entertainments.”

From this point, Alden stated that the task is to distill it and integrate it with information from other sources into a finished article. This is the difficult part — just as it is to dilute the lengthy obituary sent in by a family member. But, fortunately, today family members can build a lengthy obituary at sites that they control. Still, it is good to keep in mind what the deceased might have wanted in honor and respect to that life, rather than what family members want.

The obituary, at the very least, is a recount of a person’s date of birth, his or her parentage, the survivor names and a paragraph about the highlights in the deceased’s life. Information about the burial services, the viewing times (if any) and other information for people who want to pay their respects to the deceased is vital as well. Beyond this, the obituary becomes a short story, and newspapers often don’t have space for that type of obituary. In this case, you — or, if you are a funeral home directory — can surf to memorial spaces online that allow this space and this type of obituary. I mentioned a few of these sites previously, but you also might consider Memorial Link, Christian Memorials, Valley of Life, Respectance or Last Memories.

If you do decide to use an online memorial service, remember to keep a copy or two on a disk or external drive in case that site owner decides to take the site down. These sites, just like any other business, may be here today and gone tomorrow. Print a copy of the page out, too, so that you have a visual of what the page looks like when it is finished. This is a nice memorial to send to those friends and relatives who do not have access to computers, and it also serves as a backup in case your online information is lost.

Finally, you might take a look at Deathcare’s article on how to write an obituary, or peruse the site, Obituary Writing before you take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Remember that you, like Alden Whitman, are writing a life story in a condensed version. While your local newspaper may limit words, the family now has access to various resources to help vent their grief, their love and their respect for a deceased loved one.

Unlike Whitman, if you wait until that loved one is dead and gone to write an obituary, you won’t need to endure rejection. But, taking a clue from Whitman, an obituary written before a death often can be richer and more rewarding. As he stated when asked about his success as an advance obituary writer, “I have been turned down by remarkably few persons…some others have been hesitant at first; but, having acquiesced, seem to have enjoyed themselves.”

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