Reading (and Writing) the Obituary Page

Even when I was young, the obituaries were “must reading” in my local newspaper. I wasn’t a morbid child – indeed, I felt pretty anxious about death (still do, truth be told) – but obituaries aren’t really about death. They’re about lives. As Bill McDonald, obituary editor for the New York Times said, “The obit page is a collection of stories, of people’s lives, some well known, some obscure. And unlike most newspaper stories, these have a satisfying narrative arc … we not only get to say how the story began; we also get to say how it ended.”

The obituary page of yesterday’s online New York Times is a case in point. The first two stories recount well-known lives:

  • With an insinuating pose and a seductive, throaty voice — her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic Lauren Bacallsaid — Ms. Bacall shot to fame in 1944  …
  • Almost from the moment that he first uttered the greeting “Nanoo, nanoo” as Mork from Ork, an alien Robin Williamswho befriends a wholesome young Colorado woman (Pam Dawber), on the sitcom “Mork and Mindy,” Mr. Williams was a comedy celebrity …

These obituaries of iconic figures Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams are followed by stories of individuals with less fame but who still made the exceeding difficult cut to warrant a Times obit – those who have made “a wrinkle in the social fabric.”

This makes sense, of course. Obituaries are news, so only those whose lives have made a significant difference in the world at large will warrant coverage in the “paper of record.” Other individuals will merit attention in the obit columns of regional or local newspapers.

That’s the news side of the obituaries. The well-told facts of the lives of those who have made a difference in the world. But everyone – even those who don’t merit column inches in a national, regional, or local paper – makes a difference in the world. And tributes to the lives of these lesser-known individuals can be just as important.

Bill McDonald spoke a bit derisively about these “paid death notices” – “gathered and placed in the paper or on the Web by the classified advertising department, which operates independently of the news department.” There’s no fact-checking for these stories. They are written not by journalists, but by family members or via a stock template. But whether they’re called legacies or memorials or tributes, they’re still obituaries in my mind.

* * * * * * * * * *

My father had a massive heart attack in the spring of 2006. Complicated surgery might have extended his life for a while, but he wouldn’t have wanted that. So, instead, we waited for him to die. My sisters lived far away, so my mother and I were the ones who sat vigil by his bedside, mom during the day and me at night. Dad never regained consciousness, but the dying took several days and he finally passed early in the afternoon of March 6. When I returned to the hospital, I spent a bit of time at the bedside with Mom, then we spoke with hospital officials about arrangements and I took her home to the apartment they had shared. We didn’t talk much on the way, but as we walked through the doorway, Mom turned to me. “Get some paper, Kathy. I want to dictate the obituary.”

And she did. She was a newspaperwoman through and through, and she knew exactly what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it. I took the words down, typed them up when I got home, and sent them off to all the newspapers that had played a part in Dad’s life: Detroit Free Press, Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, San Antonio Express-News, Sarasota Herald Tribune, Bryan-College Station Eagle. There was a financial charge at each newspaper – just a “paid death notice” in this sense – but the obituary was the story of Joe Ted Miller that Mom thought should be told.

Six and a half years later, Mom was living in an assisted living facility near my sister, Ann, in Seattle. Her health was failing fast and she was nearing the end of her life. Because of work and family obligations, I was the only sibling who was able to make an immediate cross-country trip, though both Mary and Barb wanted to be there, too.

I talked with Mary on the phone hours before I got on the plane. She felt helpless and bereft about not being with Mom at the end. Remembering the hours after Dad’s death, I made a simple suggestion – start writing the obituary.

And she did. Though we all eventually contributed to the prose, Mary’s draft captured the facts and spirit of Mom’s life. Here are a few of Mary’s words that I quoted in a previous blog post:

Margaret enjoyed playing bridge and attending plays, sewing and quilting and needlepoint, talking politics and playing Scrabble. She sang in church choirs and community choruses, and listened to classical music throughout her Mom on Beachlife. She participated in Campfire Girls as a child, and cheered for the Detroit Tigers far into retirement; she hosted dinner parties in Michigan, helped save turtle nests in Florida, and sang with the Ukes music group in Texas. Her mind stored long poems and all the verses of many hymns, her heart carried family histories and stories. She enjoyed watching Big Ten football, swimming and playing tennis, and reading good novels and biographies. She was a remarkable writer. She made and kept close friendships all through her life, and especially treasured time spent with her grandchildren, in whom she took tremendous pride. Her generous spirit, her integrity and open mind and commitment to social justice, her joy in life and her love for her family, will always be remembered.

* * * * * * * * * *

Obituaries are news stories published at the end of notable lives. They serve as life summaries – valuable to readers in the moment and, as has been said about journalism in general, rough drafts of history.

But obituaries aren’t just about the subject. Or about the reader. Obituaries – at least the ones not written as news – are also about the writer. Obituaries are a way for loved ones to frame lives that have ended. Obituaries serve as legacies to long and productive lives, as tributes to lives ended suddenly, or even occasionally as retribution.

Further, in today’s world of social media, obituaries are created by the collective. In the minutes and hours after a celebrity’s death, Twitter is awash with tweets of shock and honor. As Jonathan Mahler noted about the online reaction to Robin Williams’s death, “In the age of social media, everyone is an obituary writer.” On Facebook, the pages of the recently deceased become virtual wakes as friends share photos and memories and provide comfort to survivors.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Obituary Writer, a lovely novel by Ann Hood, tells the story of Vivien, a woman in California in the early part of the 20th obituary writercentury. Vivien writes obituaries for the local newspaper; when someone dies, loved ones come to Vivien:

Everyone who came to her small office in Napa answered her request of: “Tell me about your loved one” with facts. Vivien let them tell her about places of birth and accomplishments, numbers of grandchildren and siblings. Then, when they were finished, she would say again, “Tell me about your loved one.” That was when the person began to come to life.

So this is what we do. In the obituary columns of newspapers, on Facebook pages, on Twitter and Tumblr feeds, our words craft the stories of lives. The stories serve as lasting tributes, biographies we use to remember. And the stories also serve to re-member the tellers – if only briefly – in community.

2 thoughts on “Reading (and Writing) the Obituary Page”

  1. What a beautiful column, Kathy. And ever so timely. I just finished reading it at an airport bar, waiting for the flight home to my grandfather’s funeral. I will be writing his obituary–a story in which he “comes to life”–on the plane.

    1. Oh Kristen, so sorry about your grandfather’s death. I hope being able to think and write about his life will be a good way for you feel some peace and share it with others. And there will probably be something especially powerful about gazing down on clouds as you write …

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