March 27, 2006

Journalists traditionally earn a valuable fringe benefit: They always get an obituary when they croak, either by their paper’s obit writer or by someone else in the newsroom. Now think about your colleagues. Do you really trust those louts to write such an intimate piece about you?

Of course not — so here’s how to write your own obituary.

Obituaries have changed a lot in the last quarter of a century, mostly because of Jim Nicholson of the Philadelpha Daily News, who wrote feature obits on ordinary people chosen at random. Nicholson interviewed family and friends to extract telling details, rich anecdotes and character quotes. In an interview for “Best Newspaper Writing 1987,” I asked him how often he failed with such chancy and unlikely material. He replied, “If you’re a good enough reporter, everybody’s interesting.”

Nevertheless, most newspaper obits lack such human interest because the résumé gets in the way. Here’s Mel Mencher, telling beginners how to report for an obit, in his “News Reporting and Writing, 7th Edition”:

The following items are required in all obituaries:

  • Name, age, occupation and address of deceased.
  • Time, place and cause of death.
  • Birthdate, birthplace.
  • Survivors. (Only immediate family.)
  • Memberships, military service.
  • Funeral and burial arrangements.

Many obituaries also will include:

  • Outstanding or interesting activities and achievements.
  • Memberships in fraternal, religious or civic organizations.
  • Service in armed forces.
  • Anecdotes and recollections of friends and relatives.

The interesting stuff comes last in this list of 10 categories, almost as an afterthought: “Many obituaries also will include…” By the time most writers get around to that final item, they’re out of time and space and energy. And one more interesting life ends up flattened by data.

The secret of fascinating obits is pushing the résumé into the background.

The secret of fascinating obits is pushing the résumé into the background. Here’s how: First, you type the data
into a box, and then write the body text from the “anecdotes and
recollections.” You poke some of the boxed facts into the text as necessary; you can’t retell an anecdote about military life without framing it with the military service record. The most advanced obituaries nowadays print the box, the body text and a picture, preferably of the person in action, not an airbrushed college head shot when the subject dies at 83.

How to Do It…

Here’s how to write your own state-of-the-art obituary, assuming, of course, that someone else will finish it.

1.) BOX List this data in a text box:

  • Your name, age, occupation and address
  • Your date and place of birth
  • Your memberships and military service
  • Fraternal, religious and civic organizations you belonged to
  • Your family, both deceased and surviving
  • Any funeral and burial arrangements already made

2.) SOURCE MATERIAL List these items elsewhere:

  • Your activities and achievements
  • Your favorite anecdotes and recollections about you

3.) CORE Write a few rich paragraphs in the third person, answering this question: “What do I want people to remember about me?”

4.) LEAD Write a short lead announcing your death and telling the reader what you and this obituary are about.

5.) SECONDARY Select your “source material”
rigorously, and write a few paragraphs from whatever survives. Arrange
these paragraphs around your core.

6.) RESUME Copy selected items, such as survivors, from the box to the text.

7.) ENDING By now, an ending will occur to you, so type it.

8.) POLISH Cut the text by 20 percent, repair the
transitions, read aloud and revise. Write “DRAFT” and the date at the
top, and give appropriate people a copy.

Remember how Stanley Walker ended his famous 1924 paragraph on the ideal journalist: “When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.” They may forget you, but if you write your own, your obit will live forever.

Don Fry, an affiliate of the Poynter Institute, works as an independent
writing coach out of Charlottesville, Va. Don has not written his own
obit, hoping that Roy Peter Clark will eventually write him a funny one.

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Represents the Poynter Institute at journalism organization meetings and conferences, National Writers' Workshops, and the Institute for Advancement of Journalism in South Africa. Helps writers…
Don Fry

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