“But the world, it seems, is full of secret obituary readers who are gradually coming out of their closets. Mention at any dinner party that you are an obituary writer and someone always admits to turning to the obituary page first. And they are, er, dying for more.”
~ Tim Bullamore, Freelance writer from Bath, England
My interest in obituaries flourished since I was given an unconventional Grade 13 Creative Writing assignment: write your epitaph. My teacher, Mrs. Ezer, had a reputation for being eccentric – but epitaph? Did she forget she was speaking to a bunch of 17-year-olds who were in the midst of filling out university applications and largely feeling immortal? I followed through diligently, yet my inspiration came only after several afternoon strolls through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where I read rows upon rows of epitaphs after spending mornings reading obituaries in the dailies.
Now there is a devoted worldwide following of obituary fans who pore over deaths of everyone from celebrities to philanthropists to ordinary people. All obituaries have the potential to intrigue and surprise the reader, and this often occurs from reading the most revealing details written about the subject, such as in the obituary Adam Bernstein of The Washington Post wrote on theologian, author and educator Langdon Gilkey on November 22, 2004: “He could sometimes be caustic in his reminiscences of the South during that era [referring to segregation] once writing that “even in the ‘Bible Belt’ the Bible is a relatively unknown book – sacred of course, but quite unfamiliar.”
The obituary is often the last item written about the life of a deceased person. Its contents tend to be moving because it encapsulates the aura of the person and showcases anything from their personality characteristics to their career ambitions. They are intimate, and give us reason to pause in the mad rush to soak up the day’s most important news.
Despite an emergence of interest in the craft, obituary writing remains a contested form of journalism. This might be because standard forms are still handed out dutifully to members of the deceased’s family by funeral parlour administrators, fuelling the widely held perception that obituaries are simplified chronicles of a person’s life that can be written by anyone.
As Tom Feran from Ohio’s largest newspaper, The Plain Dealer lamented in an article, “Practicing the dying art is a craft that is sometimes too-little appreciated. When I started in the business…obits were part of the training for new reporters, and they usually followed a fill-in-the-blanks, one size-fits-all formula. It was dry as bones.”
Catherine Dunphy, a features writer with The Toronto Star, is astounded that debate still percolates over obituary writing as a form of journalism. “Obituaries aren’t eulogies. They’re about storytelling. There’s a narrative arc to them, and that’s journalism.”
Colin Haskin, obituaries editor of The Globe and Mail agrees, saying, “Obituary writing is journalism – it most definitely falls into the category of feature writing.”
Ultimately, the best obituaries are detailed and vigorous, bringing the subject to life. A good obit evokes emotion and gives the reader a sense of the subject’s character. Before obituary writing became recognized as a craft unto itself – and the recognition of this remains an ongoing struggle – excellence was not expected. Currently, there are more rigorous standards.
Obituaries have been refined over the years. They are in-depth and sometimes critical. For example, in a recent one on the architect Philip Johnson, which ran in the Globe on January 31, 2005, Paul Goldberger described the mixed reviews Johnson’s work elicited: “Because of his frequent changes of style, he was often accused of pandering to fashion and of designing buildings that were facile and shallow.”
Some obituary writers are reserved about including negative commentary, since speaking in an unflattering manner about the recently deceased in a public forum is still considered taboo by some. But the goal isn’t to create a hagiography. The obituary guidelines of the Globe state: “Include no more than one or two gushy quotes from colleagues or family (we’re all wonderful when we’re dead).”
Writing an obituary can be a formidable task. One has only to look at the December 2004 passing of Pierre Berton, a man of significant stature in a nation with a relative absence of heroes. The prolific writer was a Canadian icon, and the outpouring of grief that accompanied his passing confirmed this sentiment. Berton’s years at the Star (1958-1962) were captured especially well by Star writer Warren Gerard: “He was writing a 1,200-word column six days a week, or close to 300,000 words a year. At the same time, he was writing books, skits for Spring Thaw, and was appearing on television and had a daily radio column on CHUM radio.”
The question facing the obituary writer is: How to capture the essence of the subject in a tight and timely format? Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists, believes this is an attainable goal. “The memorable obit will give the reader something special, unknown, or unusual about the person who is the subject,” she says. “If you read the obit and find things you didn’t know about the person, then the obit writer has done his job well.”
Although I haven’t strolled through Mount Pleasant Cemetery since I handed in that high school assignment several years ago, I haven’t stopped reading obituaries. In fact, through the course of this assignment, it suddenly dawned on me: I want to be an obituary writer.
And I got the opportunity to try – writing one for the Globe about a gentleman named Somer James, a seaman for The Merchant Navy of Canada during World War 2. The feedback received from obits editor Haskin after he read my first draft confirmed the craft’s intricacy:
“Quite nicely done though, alas, I think you will have to take another run at it. The piece reads more like a tribute…Don’t lose heart – you’ll soon get the idea. It’s about storytelling, not writing.”
I’m currently awaiting feedback on my second draft.