Summing Up a Life: Meeting the Obituary’s Challenge

April 9, 2003
Category: Uncategorized

Fifty years ago, the obituary was a rite of passage for new reporters. Reporting and writing an obit was often the first task for journalism newcomers. Obits introduced neophytes to the basic story form, the absolute need for accuracy, and the sometimes painful — but necessary — encounters with people at times of great stress.


Obituaries are one of the news industry’s oldest conventions and, with some notable exceptions described below, have shown little change over the centuries they have appeared in print. Writing an obituary remains a basic and critical assignment — and for some journalists a speciality — that requires the ability to report a death and sum up a life with accuracy, speed and sensitivity.

The challenges of the form were brought home fresh last Friday morning when I learned that Michael Kelly, the magazine editor and newspaper columnist, had become the first American journalist to die in the war with Iraq. (See Poynter’s “Fallen Journalists” page for more information about journalism casualties.)

Alerted by Kelly’s former teacher at the University of New Hampshire, Don Murray, Poynter was able to post a news alert within minutes after The Washington Post broke the story, shortly before 11 a.m.


After filing that bulletin, I spent most of the day and evening assembling a story about Kelly’s life and death. When it was over (although thanks to the Internet, I was able to update and revise over the weekend) I felt a familiar swirl of post-deadline emotions: pride at turning a story quickly, followed by regret that it wasn’t good enough, that conflicting blend of absorption and “if only” dissastisfaction that makes reporting such an obsessive line of work.

To ward off that negativism, and help improve my skills, I assigned myself a refresher course in obituary writing. My syllabus included sections on obituary writing from my book, “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century,” and “America’s Best Newspaper Writing: A Collection of ASNE Prizewinners,” the anthology that Roy Peter Clark and I edited. I supplemented these with excellent online resources available on Poynter Online, as well as the No Train, No Gain site maintained by newspaper training editors.

Here are some of the things I want to remember about the obituary assignment:

“In community journalism, the writing of obits is one of the most important things we do,” says James A. Raykie Jr., editor of The Herald in Sharon, Pa. The paper publishes about 2,000 obituaries a year, most written by a full-time obit writer assisted by other reporters and newsroom assistants on days when local deaths exceed an average of nine. The paper learned just how important obituaries are to readers when a 1988 redesign moved death records from the front to the back page. Reader complaints prompted the paper to go back to front-page death stories. (Read more about how The Herald handles obituaries here.)

When journalists write about deaths, as with births, weddings and funerals, their work becomes more visibly an act of culture, and the newspaper comes to serve as the handbook of membership in a community.

A definition: An obituary (the root of the word is “obit,” the Latin word for “death”) is a news report of someone’s death, often with a biographical sketch of the deceased. Think of an obituary as a capsule biography published after a person dies. “That’s what an obit is supposed to be—a picture, a snapshot. It’s not a full-length biography, it’s not a portrait. It’s a quick picture,” observed Alden Whitman, who specialized in obituaries at The New York Times and was famously profiled by Gay Talese in “Mr. Bad News,” a 1966 Esquire profile. In a rich report from last summer’s Fourth Great Obituary Writers’ Conference, New Yorker writer Mark Singer offered this elegant definition of the form: a “completed cycle of accomplishment or notoriety, concisely wrought.”

Over the years, newspapers have developed different reporting and writing strategies for different kinds of obituaries. On the most basic level, information was gathered at the funeral home from the family of the dead person. This could be passed along to the newspaper, where it would be reassembled into prose and placed in the paper, sometimes in a single short block of type, perhaps with a photograph.

Prominent citizens and celebrities received different treatment, not the least of which was considerably more space in the paper. At times, obit files were compiled on the more prominent while still alive, a nice bit of long-range planning. This allowed the newspaper to report a death — from Dr. Spock to Dr. Seuss to Papa Doc — promptly and with great detail about the life of the deceased.

Occasional experiments have been introduced to the obit over the years, including a British newspaper’s efforts to publish more candid, less polite renditions of a person’s life, including information about bad habits, professional scandals, and personal indiscretions.


Obituaries can be divided into three categories:

NEWS OBIT: The report of a death that is considered newsworthy because of the prominence of the individual or his or her place in the community.

FEATURE OBIT: The basic news report fleshed out with biographical information, including anecdotes, descriptions, quotes, reminiscences. Although feature obits are usually limited to prominent, influential or famous people, a new form — dubbed the “common man” (and woman) feature obit — emerged in the 1980s.

At the Philadelphia Daily News, a former investigative reporter named Jim Nicholson brought the form to an art, winning prizes, including the ASNE’s first obituary writing award in 1987, for his sensitive portrayals of the lives and deaths of ordinary men and women, in the process earning the nickname “Dr. Death.” Other obituary specialists include Robin Hinch at the Orange County Register and Trudi Hahn at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

In “America’s Best Newspaper Writing,” Roy Clark recounted the obstacles Jim Nicholson faced to create a new form:

Nicholson had to fight to accomplish this task, overcoming the old reputation of the Philadelphia Daily News as a scandal sheet, the skepticism of funeral directors, and the cynicism of his fellow journalists.

“My God,” they told him. “Fifteen inches for a guy that fixed toilets — in our newspaper?”

But Nicholson followed his instincts, checked the rival Inquirer obits for hints of an interesting life, and then used his skill as a telephone interviewer to milk family members and cronies for wonderful details about the deceased, spoken in the working-class dialect of the Philly rowhouses.

So we find out that Marie Byrne smacked her kids for “making the nuns upset” and that she had a “private prayer list with countless people on it.” We learn that John Ciavardone, skinny as a lead pencil, cried only once over his terrible war injuries and referred to his buddy, Mickey DiSanto, as his seeing-eye dog, his “canine.”

It’s an old ideal in American journalism: Everybody’s got a story. But Nicholson puts it to the test, and proves it, day after day. The astonishing body of his work also proves James Carey’s theory that “news is culture,” that the most noble of reporting goals is to chronicle the rhythms of life and the rites of passage, cycles of birth and death, of marriage and divorce, of achievement and failure.

APPRECIATION: An essay that explores the impact of a person’s life — and death — often written by someone familiar with the person or the person’s work, as in this appreciation of Michael Kelly by Ken Ringle of The Washington Post.


Portraits of Grief: A New Stencil?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, a decision by the The New York Times to commemorate the victims led to a departure from the traditonal obituary, a brief, impressionistic form that melded elements of the feature obituary with the appreciation. What were they, asked Geneva Overholser asked, “if not a new rendering of “news about ordinary people” and obits rolled into one? “

In form yes, but the spirit behind them bespoke the legacy of earlier approaches. That’s what an obit is supposed to be—a picture, a snapshot. It’s not a full-length biography, it’s not a portrait. It’s a quick picture.Describing the effort, Times reporter Janny Scott characterized the 200-word stories in words that echoed Alden Whitman’s description of the longer and more definitive obituaries the paper published about more famous dead:


“The portraits were never meant to be obituaries in any traditional sense. They were brief, informal and impressionistic, often centered on a single story or idiosyncratic detail. They were not intended to recount a person’s résumé, but rather to give a snapshot of each victim’s personality, of a life lived.”


Writing in Columbia Journalism Review, Barbara Stewart, another Times reporter, acknowledged the portraits’ journalistic lineage while distinguishing them from past and contemporary approaches.
The tradition of running short profiles of the victims of disasters, like plane crashes and fires, is probably as old as newspapering. This fall, several newspapers in cities hard-hit by the attacks — including The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Newark Star-Ledger — have had brief obituaries of the September 11 victims from their areas.

But the portraits are not obituaries or brief biographies. They are something different — impressionistic sketches, or, as one of the metropolitan editors who created them says, “little jewels.” Like a quick caricature that captures a likeness, they are intimate tales that give an impression, an image, of a person. They skip most items required in standard obituaries: survivors, lists of colleges, degrees earned, jobs held, descriptions of newsworthy accomplishments.
Read extended coverage about “Portraits of Grief” here.  A more recent example: When a pyrotechnic display ignited a fire that burned down The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. on Feb. 20, the Providence Journal profiled 99 people killed in the fire.



OBITUARIES: A PROCESS APPROACH

Good writing demands a rational series of decisions and steps that every writer makes, regardless of deadline or genre. If we can isolate the conditions that exist when we write a good story, we boost our chances of repeating that success on our next assignment.

IDEA
Deaths are usually reported by funeral homes, although word of accidental deaths, such as those occurring in motor vehicle and plane crashes, may come from police, fire or other public safety agencies. Editors usually make the decision on treatment: whether the story will be a brief news obit or a feature obituary. Of course, an enterprising reporter can pitch a story about a local figure or an appreciation of a cultural icon, such as Kurt Cobain or Selena.

COLLECT
Funeral directors generally obtain and disseminate the basic facts for an obituary to the news media, but the reporter will have to do additional reporting to flesh the story out. Who will be your best source? Often closest relatives are too distraught to be of much help. But a co-worker or friend of the deceased can often provide rich details.

An obituary contains standard information. Here’s a checklist:




  • Name of deceased

  • Age

  • Address

  • Occupation

  • Cause of death

  • Memberships

  • Education

  • Military history

  • Survivors

  • Names and addresses of family members

  • Donation information

  • Funeral information
FOCUS
Although death is the obvious news peg, an obituary, like any story, needs a central point. What is the most newsworthy aspect of this person’s life or death? Why is this person’s death of interest to your audience?

ORDER
Obituaries follow a standard structure. The lead reports the identity of the person who died, the middle recaps his or her life in chronological order from birth to death and the ending provides information about survivors and the funeral.

DRAFT
The obituary lead includes: Name; a phrase that conveys the person’s significance (i.e., “the inventor of the Slinky”); date of death (location, circumstances are optional); age; cause of death.

REVISE
Style is important, but accuracy is the top priority in an obituary. Obituaries are often the only time a person’s name will appear in the newspaper. Obituaries, often laminated, become part of a family’s permanent record. Mistakes can add lasting pain to already-grieving survivors. Make sure you’ve got it right: spellings, ages. “I learned a lot when my father passed away,” said John Nick, who edits obituaries at the Daily News-Sun in Sun City, Ariz. He keeps his dad’s framed obituary, which he wrote, on a wall at home. “I learned the importance people put on reading the obituary. It’s the last time a person’s name will be in the paper. You have to get the facts right.”

Writing the Feature Obituary

Gerry Goldstein of The Providence Journal is a veteran reporter and editor who relished the obituary assignment. “I get excited because I’m about to face my favorite professional challenge: freeze-framing a lifetime in the newspaper version of tarpit amber — a column of type.”

Read Goldstein’s obituaries of a colorful centenarian and a former police chief, and his philosophy of obit writing, and you’ll understand why over the years some readers paid him the ultimate compliment: they asked him to write their obits.