|Old-school journalists at work
New York Times News Room circa 1949–Source: Wikipedia
By Jim Heffernan
I heard still another journalist disparage obituary writing the other day on the radio. I say “another journalist” because that’s what they always do when they go on to bigger and better things in newspaper work.
“Yeah, I got stuck writing obits at the Dry Socket, Montana, Clarion when I first started out,” they say after winning the Pulitzer Prize several years later.
Obituary writing is to journalism what carrying a pail and shovel behind the elephants in a circus parade is to show business, in the minds of most journalists.
I “got stuck” writing obits when I started out writing for the Duluth daily newspapers, but I seldom minded. I often enjoyed it when someone of note or had led an interesting life passed on to his or her reward.
No one person did all of the obits when I was a young reporter. Everyone on the staff got involved, usually when switchboard operators or city editors directed morticians’ calls to staffers who were not otherwise occupied. In those ancient times, a half-century ago, most obituaries were dictated by undertakers to reporters over the telephone.
And while others grumbled when they got stuck, I didn’t mind. It was a bit of a challenge to turn the obituary of an ordinary person into something a little special, hopefully notable. The morticians just gathered the facts from family members; it was up to us to turn the material into readable prose.
I have written obituaries for local luminaries, civic leaders, movers and shakers, politicians, shady characters and hundreds of regular folks whose only mention in the newspaper in their entire lives was their obit. And, yes, I have written them for friends and relatives.
All of this took place for me long before the newspaper began charging for obituaries, as it does today. Obits are now considered the same as advertising so that what appears is written by families or undertakers forwarding the words of survivors to non-journalists. Thus, in some current obits you read that certain decedents have already been accepted into heaven where they have been reunited with loved ones who have gone before, and so forth. Angels are often involved.
Does anybody get sent in the other direction? Not in the obituaries.
This sort of hyperbole was not allowed when the news department wrote the obits. We had certain rules about how they should be written, including information on the person’s educational background, career, organization memberships, religious affiliations and military service, together with immediate survivors. Often there was room to word them in such a way that the most ordinary person seemed at least somewhat special, if for no other reason than longevity.
You can say what you want however you want to say it today when paying for the obit of a family member, but I think the more formal journalistic way was better – more respectful (but not as profitable). Do you really want your “flour-legged friends Rover and Fido” as survivors in the final accounting of your life?
I haven’t done it yet, but I think I have one more journalistic obituary left in me. My own. I’ll get to it one of these days.