Obituary writer?
May 18, 2005 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Are newspaper obituaries always provided by the family, or in the event where one has no family, are there people who write them? If so, does anyone have any experience or second hand stories concerning writing them?

Trying to write a story where the central character writes obits for a paper and wanted to hear about any stories or if, as I suspect, I'm out of my mind.
posted by xmutex to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's kind of the lowest job on the totem pole at newspapers, and yes, folks do write them. There's at least one first-person memoir about doing it, if I recall correctly. Of course, I can't remember the title offhand...

Check out Obit Page or Goodbye Magazine, the latter of which may just be a collection of obits, organized by an obit writer.
posted by GaelFC at 4:03 PM on May 18, 2005

Perhaps too weird to be useful, but Death and the Penguin is a novel with a central character hired to write obituaries.
posted by aneel at 4:14 PM on May 18, 2005

Maybe this relates only marginally, but KCRW in LA has a monthly half-hour program, The Final Curtain, (available as a podcast) which features radio obituaries of people who have passed recently.
posted by Tufa at 4:22 PM on May 18, 2005

Best answer: I used to write them full time many years ago when first starting out, and I've done a few newsmaker obits in recent years.

At my first paper, the funeral home would gather basic details about the deceased and take out a death notice - one of those paid tiny boxes in the classified section with the barest details of name, residence and age. My job was to sift through them and pick out several to write up that day to fill out the obit page. I remember a million old widows. I would call the funeral home, get more details and write up a nice little story. It was usually very pro forma. Rarely did I talk to a family member, but when I did, (when the funeral director had no information or passed on a number when someone wanted to talk) I could usually get a nice anecdote or two out of them and a better sense of the person, so the obit was much better. Sometimes it was like pulling teeth though - you can really hone your interview skills writing obits. Trying to sum up someone's whole life in a short conversation, knowing what to ask, is tough.
When a big shot died, I would go look through the clips on the person (no google then! how did we manage?) and make some calls to people who knew him or her. They would get much more space, obviously, sometimes starting on page one.
Any specific questions, email me.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:27 PM on May 18, 2005

Newspaper obits are written by staff writers, while "death announcements" are written by family members, and are paid-for. They often run side-by-side, and unless you're a newspaper writer or fanatical obituary aficionado, you wouldn't pay much attention to the difference.

For the newspapers, they couldn't be more different. Obituaries are subjected to the full editorial process and are written according to their news value (how important or known was the deceased to the average reader?), while paid death announcements are not generally rigorously fact-checked, and are treated more akin to classified ads (the submitter writes it, the newspaper runs it as is).

And, as GaelFC notes, it is one of the lower-rung newspaper jobs for a variety of reasons (obits are generally not sourced in the same way that news stories, and they have a very specific form that makes them easy to write. Also, it's impossible to libel the dead, so there's little risk of legal recourse if a green reporter messes up.) Interestingly enough, obits are also often the very first news story that they teach you to write in Journalism School for the very same reason.

Interesting fact: newspapers and other media outlets often write 'advance obits' for very newsworthy people (former presidents, etc), that can be quickly updated with the last few year's info for a fast turnaround to publication. Obviously, if these get out (as happens from time to time with media web sites), it can be somewhat embarrassing. Also awkward if you interview the person for their own obituary. Fun fact: some of these advance obits hang around for so long, they outlast the reporter. I believe the New York Times had a prolific obit writer who recently had a posthumous byline on an obit he had written years before he (or the subject) died.
posted by Eldritch at 4:33 PM on May 18, 2005

Best answer: At some newspapers these days, there's an increased emphasis on obituary writing. Essentially, newspapers are losing readers left and write, largely because people would rather read the same thing for free online. Studies conducted by the Readership Institute have found that stories about "real people" as opposed to big wigs with news value, appeal to occasional readers. Obituary stories fit under this heading, and are immensely popular, according the the Readership folks. As a result, there's a huge emphasis at some newspapers on getting "real people" obituaries into the paper on a regular basis.

The Oregonian, for example, has someone whose job it is full time to write an obituary every day profiling an ordinary person's life. My smaller paper, with a much smaller staff, has one "real person" obituary per week, and the responsibility for the feature rotates among the reporters.

There's a not-at-all accurate book called "The Obituary Writer" that you might check out, about a big city paper's obit writer and the grand adventure that leads him to a more glamorous beat. He's a completely unethical character and not someone I'd want to know in real life.

Some people think of the obituary writer's job as the lowest rung on the ladder, but there are also some incredibly talented writers out there writing obituaries and people who really enjoy what they're doing and wouldn't want to do anything else.

The Washington Post's obituary of the pope had a posthumous byline, perhaps that's what you have in mind Eldritch?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:51 PM on May 18, 2005

How's that for a Freudian slip. "Left and write." grrr...
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:52 PM on May 18, 2005

Depends on nation and locality I would assume. Our local paper only writes obituaries for people of note or for people you request. I think this is commonplace in the UK. Therefore, unless they were of any importance, I can't see an unfamilied/unfriended person ever getting an obit (though nor is there probably a reason for them to).
posted by wackybrit at 4:54 PM on May 18, 2005

I wrote my dad's obituary for the local paper. FWIW, it was published in full and I was only 20 at the time. Of course, I grew up in an area that only had a population of 100,000, give or take.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 5:11 PM on May 18, 2005

"52 McG's" collects 52 obituaries from "legendary obituary" writer Robert Thomas. He was known for his wit and his penchant for treating subjects that would otherwise not have merited attention at the New York Times. It also contains an obituary for Thomas who passed away in 2000.
posted by stuart_s at 6:35 PM on May 18, 2005

One of the main characters in the movie (and play) Closer is an obituary writer who wants to be a novelist. His career is only mentioned, though, you don't see him at it.
posted by matildaben at 8:27 PM on May 18, 2005

The main character of Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case is an obit writer.
posted by booth at 9:53 PM on May 18, 2005

Side question: why don't obits generally state the cause of death? I see such a wide range of ages (obviously) and sometimes, there are little photos to go along with the text, and I just find myself curious as to how they died. I usually only get an idea if they say something about donating to a certain charity or whatnot. I know it's none of our business, but so is everything else they list. Is it some "unspoken" custom?
posted by cyniczny at 10:17 PM on May 18, 2005

Cause of death is usually the result of an autopsy, which is not done before the funeral in most cases. Now, if there was a lengthy illness (i.e. cancer, AIDS) or a sudden death (car crash, murder), the obit is more likely to mention the cause. Sometimes there are little hints; in some American newspapers, "died suddenly at home" often indicates suicide.

Usually, though, there's no cause of death given for "ordinary people" because the obit writer hasn't been provided with one, and the person isn't "important" enough for the desk to tell them to dig one up. Because time's a-wastin', and there's always another stiff on the pile.
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:24 AM on May 19, 2005

Slightly off-topic, but fitting in with a bunch of the answers so far: obituary writing is touched on in Fletch Lives, kind of a Batman: Year One Fletch novel. I remembered it being a larger part of the story than it actually is, but it turns out that it's mostly just a throwaway joke in the first chapter.

But the interesting part: when I was looking around to confirm the particular novel, I found that Amazon has the first chapter online. It made me happy.
posted by flipper at 8:35 AM on May 19, 2005

Best answer: I've written lots of local newspaper obits in Norf London, and was just writing an anecdote-filled answer but it was turning into a novel itself, so here’s the straight-up version, all specific to the type of paper I worked on: I don’t imagine the Telegraph obit desk gets involved in many death knocks…

As Eldritch says, they're chosen like any other kind of story - for news value. They might be kicked off by the opening of an inquest, or by police news (the police give a weekly briefing to local crime reporters of the most high profile muggings/deaths etc.) or just by tip-offs from your contacts. They might be pursued either because the manner of death was interesting/gruesome, or because the person was worthy of note.

They usually involve the "death knock", which is every cub reporter's greatest fear until you've done a few. It involves knocking on the door of someone who's died, seeing who answers and asking if they'd like to help you write a tribute piece about the deceased (aka an obit, but tribute sounds better at this stage).

Obviously, the reason people hate doing them at first is because you do feel like a total bastard using people's grief to fill your columns. Surprisingly though, most people are actually glad to hear from you and welcome you in - they really want to have a reason to sit and talk about the person who's died and how wonderful they were, and are also pleased to think that person was important enough to have their story and picture in the paper. (You have to ask the family for a picture…newsrooms being the sensitive places that they are, one of my colleagues had a ‘drawer of death’ full of pictures of the dead that had never been returned/reclaimed).

Cause of death: believe it or not, if it's omitted, it may be out of sensitivity to the family. Either the reporter couldn't bring themselves to say "So exactly how did they die, then?" or they know and it was an unpleasant illness that doesn't need to be delved into. On another, unusually moral note, suicides are never covered so as not to encourage other people to do the same. (At least they're not covered under the ‘interesting death’ genre. If an interesting person tops themselves, it might get in without details of the death, but if you are a nobody, even if you decide to die by unicycling off a high bridge playing the harmonica, forget it.)

Family written obits: The one time I remember anyone dabbling with one, it turned into an object lesson as to why they're never used: siblings arguing about what went in, insisting on rewriting and producing long, unreadable copy, and refusing to let it go til it was perfect, by which time the story was so old we didn't really care any more.

Like I say, I have death knock anecdotes a go go, involving dead men's shirts, melting people and crack dens, but I think I’ve said enough… might add later if I’m feeling inspired…
posted by penguin pie at 9:42 AM on May 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Larken Bradley of the Point Reyes Light took an obituary-writing workshop some time ago, and now writes all the obits seen in the Light. Since West Marin is made up of so many small towns, when someone in your town passes, you really feel the sense of John Dunne's "...any man's death diminishes me..." and Bradley handles each obit with sensitivity and caring, pointing out all the accomplishments and milestones of each person during his or her life, whether savory or not, reserving judgment for readers.
posted by Lynsey at 10:14 AM on May 19, 2005

Response by poster: penguin pie: I'd love to talk about those anecdotes, but you've got no email in your profile. Drop me a line if you'd like to share. Email's in profile.
posted by xmutex at 11:02 AM on May 19, 2005

Response by poster: Nevermind, your email's there. I need to wake up.
posted by xmutex at 11:07 AM on May 19, 2005

Waaaaay off topic, I know, but I hope somebody somewhere is collecting these little Metafilter pull quotes like "Metafilter: There's always another stiff on the pile."
posted by alumshubby at 12:01 PM on May 19, 2005

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