The brilliant minds of obit grinds

Wipe away the tears and stow the handkerchiefs; in the quirky world of obituary writers, death has never been more fun.

by Heather Cox

On June 5, 2004, gathered among the sagebrush and creosote of dusty New Mexico, the men and women of the sixth Great Obituary Writers’ Conference learned that Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States, had died. For their journalism colleagues around the world, the news bulletin killed half-formed thoughts of morning assignments, temporarily stilled clacking computer keys and sparked a frenzy of whirring tape recorders, telephone calls and lattes-to-go as reporters rushed to cover the sad news.

In New Mexico, they thought it was a hoot.

Obituarists. On the outside they are just another fact-checking body in a swivel chair. But while they share their office space with the meat-and-potatoes ‘trouble on Wall Street’ journalists, there is a distinct sense that something about them is a little . . . odd. Think of them as the indie scene of a newspaper. With an alternative take on life, a drive to establish their profession and a dedicated following that keeps them alive, though perhaps not well, they are both painfully puzzling and thoroughly pleasing.

Bringing the dead to life

Stephen Miller of the Wall Street Journal laughs at what he calls their ‘dark humour’.

“Death is part of the funny bon-ami of the profession,” he says. “We’re always like, who’s dead today? Oh come on Mrs. Reagan, just die already!”

But do yourself a favor; don’t ask if all that death gets to them.

“This is what pisses me off so thoroughly,” huffs Catherine Dunphy, former obituarist for the Toronto Star.  “I never wrote about death. It was the guys writing about gang wars, writing about the latest on the front page murders, writing about traffic accidents, who were writing about death. I wrote about life.”

Colin Haskin, editor of obituaries at the Globe and Mail, agrees. The pamphlet of obituary guidelines he hands out to freelancers reads, “Everyone dies; please find some other angle.” Only two to three lines about the death itself are allowed, and only in the last paragraph. It makes sense.

“It’s on the obits page,” Haskin says.  “People know the person is on there because they’re dead.” He says papers that harp on the last days of life are doing their subject a disservice.
“They had a lifetime of achievement and they made their mark, yet they devote half the story to their brave battle against cancer! We all die. Big deal. Once they’re gone they’re never in the news again; you have one kick at a can.”

That single kick can mean an awful lot to the families of the deceased. That’s why emotion is wiped clean on the doormat before they enter the family home. Haskin’s handbook advises, “Include no more than one or two gushy quotes from a colleague or family member. I do not encourage cheap mawkish and maudlin sentiment.”

Talk about challenging. What could be worse than politely suggesting —for the third time — to 75-year-old, lipstick-smeared Aunt Bertha that her husband must have been more than simply the greatest father, spouse and friend in the world. These platitudes are what they fondly refer to as obit-speak.

Dunphy sarcastically reels off the list that each obit writer has been trained to dismiss: “he was a fine human; never met a person he didn’t like; happily married; family was everything to him.” She breathes a sigh laced with the sentiment of ‘give me a break.’  “People have this knee jerk reaction,” she says.  “It’s like they’re dead, therefore they were perfect. No, they weren’t; interesting, flawed, you love them anyway. No one has to be perfect. We tell real stories here.”

Then there are the two-bit liars. Joan Harvey of the Oregonian chuckles as she recalls death notices of brave WWII heroes who were born in 1930. She says truth-stretching begins to surface after a blockbuster like Saving Private Ryan releases in theatres. Alana Baranick of the Plain Dealer says a popular line in Cleveland is to tell reporters that their dad beat future Olympian, Jesse Owens, in high school track and field in the 1930s. As it turns out, the only person ever to beat Owens was a poor, unknowing fellow in a rigged exhibition race for charity.

For the roguish characters of the after-life, a whispered code is put in play by the obituarist; a truthful, yet gentle way of turning philanderers into romantically restless, and dead drunks into one having been known to enjoy a drink.

The writers know what they mean to the families, but have established professional boundaries. Sandra Martin of the Globe and Mail says, “You are writing for your reader. Of course family members are going to be among them. They let you into their grief. There is a privilege to that, but you respect that grief, not pander to it.”

Most of the families are understanding. Even, Martin laughs, when the queen dies and you have to tell them, I’m so sorry I have to put your father aside.”

Give them what they want

The loyalty of their readers is a testament to their professionalism and compassion.  “I got more letters and emails from obits than from anything else,” says Dunphy.  “From following Princess Di around New York, to when I broke the Romanian orphan story. Nothing has brought the same response.”

Bill McDonald, obituaries editor of the New York Times, knows all about that level of devotion.  “People come to us religiously in some way,” he says. “We have many people tell us they really want to see who died last night.”

McDonald says the obituaries are something almost primal.  “You go back to the town criers who would come through in the morning and say who died overnight,” he says.  “It’s kind of an essential piece of information people want to know about their neighbours.”

For a desire so primal, publishers all over the continent seem to be out of touch. Some papers like the New York Times, which employs five full-time writers, know the value of a good obituary column. Other publishers, says Haskin, “could be running a condom factory; they cut their losses when the going gets tough, look around the newsroom and say, ‘Let’s cut obits’.”

The neophytes, the incompetents, the ingrates

If you want to get a rise out of an obituarist, one simple question will do the trick: how do you think other journalists view obituary writers? Once the question has been released, there is little hesitation and even less attempt to sugarcoat. In fact, one of the only answers with a thin veneer of diplomacy comes from Bill McDonald, who cautiously says, “It hasn’t been considered a glamour beat, that’s safe to say; it doesn’t have that kind of ‘aura’ among the intrepid foreign correspondents.”

Stephen Miller is more direct.  “Traditionally,” he says, “it’s where you stuck the neophytes, the incompetents, the time servers, the ingrates; it was a dumping ground.”

And although it is no longer the nitwits of the newsroom who fill the obit desk, some days they still feel the same disdain. When asked how writing obituaries enriches his life, Miller laughs. Loudly. “Enriches me financially? It impoverished me.”

Haskin supports Miller’s statement. “Perks?” he laughs. “There aren’t any. We put in anywhere between a ten and twelve hour day, and as an editor I don’t really leave the desk; there are no perks.”

At least they have each other.

The International Association of Obituarists, established in 2000, consists of 50 to 60 members, according to the research of the group’s founder, Carolyn Gilbert, who is not an obituarist herself. Gilbert organizes a conference for obituary writers every year in tiny Las Vegas, New Mexico.

But no one seems to care to talk about that society. The hot topic, instead, is the breakaway group, SPOW (Society of Professional Obituary Writers), which formed in May 2007. The members of SPOW wanted to professionalize obit writing, and that couldn’t be accomplished in the “funky little sand-sweat New Mexican town that time forgot,” as Dunphy puts it. So they grew a development team, posted a snazzy-looking website, and handed out tombstone-shaped achievement awards for their fellow tradesmen.

While Gilbert’s association includes everyone who can afford to come to the annual conference, SPOW has limited membership. And, with the lofty mission to “improve the quality of the writing and presentation of obituaries” and to “spotlight the art of obituary writing and its importance in journalism,” they are well on their way to professionalism. The next conference will be held in North Carolina in 2009.

They are all politely supportive of Gilbert.

And there is nothing more supportive than a fellow obit writer. Traveling through obituary circles, one hears continuous praise sung for Jim Nicholson, the ‘godfather’ of obituaries, who pioneered the first obit page, 26 years ago at the Philadelphia Daily News. Other name-drops include Jim Sheeler and Marilyn Johnson. In 2006 Sheeler won a Pulitzer Prize for Final Salute, a feature story about a marine major, and in 2007 he published Obit, a compilation of some of his best obituaries. Johnson is a freelancer, known for writing for Life magazine, covering the deaths of Princess Diana, Jackie Onassis and Johnny Cash. She is also the author of The Dead Beat, a book that explores the experience of writing obituaries. The two seem to have reached celebrity status among their colleagues; the George Clooney and Julia Roberts of the death notice.

For the rest, life goes on

So they all trudge along. Haskin audaciously voices his response to the condemnatory crowd: “I don’t care,” he exclaims. “It’s too late to care. I care that my boss is in favor, I care that my publisher is in support, because they know where their core readership is.”

And that seems to be that; there is not much hope for change in the future. “I wish obit writers got respect, but they don’t, nor will they,” says Dunphy. “It’s like trying to change the order of things in medicine; it’s like saying, ‘brain surgeons are fine, but it’s the GP who should really get your credit’.”
Miller sees the same future. “Unfortunately,” he says, “to whatever extent we’ve been able to build up the prestige of obits, in recent years within newspaper organizations, I’m afraid that with the demise of so many papers, whatever work we’ve done is sadly going to be lost. So that’s a shame.”

But past the gloomy outlook, the sardonic self-deprecation and the short end of the stick constantly dangling in their faces, obit writers are in it for the people, and they treat that responsibility with care.  “It’s considered a difficult job,” says Martin.  “You never repeat yourself, you can never do a follow-up story; it is the last and definitive word on anybody, usually.”

Doing that job well is enough for them.  “We don’t have illusions that it’s likely we’ll get Pulitzer prizes,” says Baranick, “but our self esteem comes from knowing that we know how to write; that we do a really good job in portraying a person’s life.”

Despite the hardships, they all seem to be where they want to be and they don’t envy their fellow reporters. For Dunphy, making the switch just made sense.  “I like writing about people,” she says, “and the way things were going, there was no other place to write about people. I don’t think you’re getting great stories covering the election, right? I mean you’re not.”

And there is never a shortage of work; each day when they wake up, a new story is on their desk.  “I think of it like a stone being thrown in the pond,” says Haskin.  “It’s a big splash when you die, then for a while there are rings that keep going on out, but mostly the pond is clear again.”

Each time it clears, they are there, recording history, preserving society and loving their jobs. And if Miller and Haskin need a reminder of one of the profession’s unique perks, Catherine Dunphy has it for them:

“The dead can’t sue,” she says. “This is where you want to be.”