Obituary Writing: Telling truths, not tales, in a reverent recounting of a life

In a discussion among student media advisers, one person noted that obituaries are probably the second-hardest things journalists have to do frequently. (The hardest? Interviewing family members about dead kids.) When a person dies, media outlets often serve as both town criers and official record keepers. They tell us who this person was, what made him or her important and what kind of life this person led. This is a difficult proposition, especially given that people have many facets and the public face of an individual isn’t always how those who knew the person best see him or her. Couple these concerns with the shock and grief the person’s loved ones and friends have experienced in the wake of the death and this has all the makings of a rough journalistic experience.

The New York Times experienced this earlier in the week when it published an obituary on Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon Church. The Times produced a news obituary that focused on multiple facets of Monson and his affect on the church. This included references to his work to expand the reach and the population of its missionary forces as well as his unwillingness to ordain women and acknowledge same-sex marriages. The obituary drew criticism from many inside the church, leading the obituary editor to defend the choices the paper made in how it covered Monson. (For a sense of comparison, here is the official obituary/notification of death that the church itself wrote for Monson.)

You will likely find yourself writing an obituary at some point in time if you go into a news-related field.  Some of my favorite stories have been obituaries, including one I did on a professor who was stricken by polio shortly after he was married in the 1950s. I interviewed his wife, who was so generous with her recollections that I was really upset when we had to cut the hell out of the piece to make it fit the space we had for it. Still, she loved it and sent me a card thanking me for my time.

Some of my most painful stories have also been obituaries. The one that comes to mind is one I wrote about a 4-year-old boy who died of complications from AIDS. His mother, his father and one of his siblings also had AIDS at a time in which the illness brought you an almost immediate death sentence and status as a societal pariah. I spoke to the mother on the phone multiple times that night, including once around my deadline when she called me sobbing. Word about the 4-year-old’s death had become public knowledge and thus she was told that her older son, who did not have AIDS, would not be allowed to return to his daycare school. Other things, including some really bad choices by my editor, made for a truly horrific overall situation in which the woman called me up after the piece I co-wrote ran and told me what a miserable human being I was. She told me the boy’s father was so distraught by what we published that he would not leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me responsible for that. Like I said, these things can be painful.

No matter the situation, there are some things you need to keep in mind when you are writing obituaries:

  • Don’t dodge the tough stuff: Your job as a journalist is to provide an objective, fair and balanced recounting of a person’s life. The Times’ editor makes a good point in noting that the paper’s job is to recount the person’s life, not to pay tribute or to serve as a eulogist. This means that you have to tell the story, however pleasant or unpleasant that might be. One of my favorite moments of honesty came from hockey legend Gordie Howe who was recalling the tight-fisted, cheap-as-heck former owner of the Detroit Red Wings:

    “I was a pallbearer for Jack,” says Howe. “We were all in the limousine, on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, `I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now he’s … a dead, miserable sonofabitch.'”

    It’s not your fault if the person got arrested for something or treated people poorly. If these things are in the public record and they are a large part of how someone was known, you can’t just dodge them because you feel weird. Check out the Times’ obituary on Richard Nixon and you’ll notice that Watergate makes the headline and the lead. As much as that was likely unpleasant for the people who were closest to Nixon, it was a central point of his life and needed to be discussed. In short, don’t smooth off the rough edges because you are worried about how other people might feel. Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

 

  • Avoid euphemisms: This goes back to the first point about being a journalist. You don’t want to soften the language or use euphemisms. People don’t “pass on” or “expire.” NFL quarterbacks pass and magazine subscriptions expire. People die. Also, unless you can prove it, don’t tell your readers that the person is “among the angels” or “resting in the arms of Jesus.” (Both of these euphemisms ended up in obituaries I edited at one point or another. They obviously didn’t make it to publication.) Say what you know for sure: The person died.

 

  • Double down on accuracy efforts: People who are reading obituaries about loved ones and friends are already on edge, so the last thing you want to do is tick them off by screwing up an obituary. I don’t know if this was just a matter of newspaper lore or if it was a real thing, but I was told more than once at a paper where I worked that there were only two things that would get us to “stop the presses:” 1) we printed the wrong lottery numbers and 2) we screwed up an obituary.
    True or not, the point was clear to me: Don’t screw up an obituary.
    Go back through your piece before you put it out for public consumption and check proper nouns for spelling and accuracy. Do the math yourself when it comes to the age (date of birth subtracted from date of death) and review each fact you possess to make sure you are sure about each one. If you need to make an extra call or something to verify information, do it. It’s better to be slightly annoying than wrong.

 

  • Accuracy cuts both ways: As much as you need to be accurate for the sake of the family, you also need to be accurate for the sake of the public record. This means verifying key information in the obituary before publishing it. The person who died might told family and friends about winning a medal during World War II or graduating at the top of her class at Harvard Law School. These could be accurate pieces of information or they could be tall tales meant to impress people. Before you publish things that could be factually inaccurate, you need to be sure you feel confident in your sourcing.
    Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t be shaking the family down for evidence on certain things (“OK, you say she liked to knit. Now, how do we KNOW she REALLY liked knitting? Do you have some sort of support for that?”) but you should try to verify fact-based elements with as many people as possible or check the information against publicly available information. Don’t get snowed by legends and myths. Publish only what you know for sure.

 

  • Don’t take things personally: Calling family, friends and colleagues of someone who just died can be really awkward and difficult for you as a reporter. Interviews with these people can be hard on them as well as hard on you. I found that when I did obituaries, I got one of three responses from people that I contacted:
    1. The source told me, “I’m sorry, but I really just can’t talk about this right now.” At that point, I apologized for intruding upon the person’s grief and left that person alone.
    2. The source is a fount of information and wanted to tell me EVERYTHING about the dead person. I found that for some of them, it was cathartic to share and eulogize and commemorate. It was like I was a new person in their circle of grief and they wanted to make sure I knew exactly why the person who died was someone worth knowing.
    3. The source was like a wounded animal and I made the mistake of sticking my hand where it didn’t belong. I have been called a vulture, a scumbag and other words I’ve been asked to avoid posting on this blog. One person even told me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right” because I had the audacity to make this phone call. I apologized profusely and once I hung up, I needed a couple minutes to shake it off. I knew it wasn’t my fault but it wasn’t easy either.

Your goal in an obituary is always to be respectful and decent while still retaining your journalistic sensibilities. It’s a fine line to walk, but if you do an obituary well, you will tell an interesting story about someone who had an impact on the world in some way. I like to think a story about this person who died should be good enough to make people wish they’d known that person while he or she was alive.

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