Updating the Modern Obituary

by M-Gillies
Newspaper obituaries

The modern public fascination with celebrities can be traced back to the rise of newspapers and magazines and the popularity of the obituaries in the 18th century.

As any up-and-coming journalist will often be told, every person has a story. In the case of obituaries, every life has a story, how those stories are told though is in the pen – or rather the keyboard of the writer.

Recently, The Atlantic posted a news article commenting on the New York Times latest obituary penned for Yvonne Brill, who made a mean beef stroganoff… err… who was one of the nation’s top aerospace engineering laureates best known for her innovations within communications satellite technology. Because, for Brill, it wasn’t just her abilities as an innovative engineer, having patented the hydrazine resistojet and contributed to the first weather satellite, or the fact that she followed her husband from job to job, took eight years off from work to raise three children or even made a mean beef stroganoff that garnered her recognition in the New York Times Obituary. Rather, Brill was a trailblazer who overcame adversity by becoming one of the first women to work in a male-dominated field, even when she had been barred from an engineering program because of her gender.

Even reading Brill’s accomplishments and her determination in following her dreams it isn’t hard to see why the New York Times gave her the accolade of gracing their obituaries page. But as The Atlantic article, in which connectingdirectors.com references, it takes an interesting look at the modern obituary, and for that matter, what an obituary is for.

As Megan Garber wrote in her article What’s an Obituary For?  “Obits are morality tales – and their stories must change with the times.”

One can’t help but wonder if in that sentence Garber is making a pun with how it is now time for obituaries to change, just as much as it is time for the New York Times to change how they write their obituaries. As Garber pointed out, obituaries have deviated from the celebration of the common man and now focus on celebrating the uncommon one through what she writes as being the monumental Mad Libs formula. It is through this fill-in-the-blanks formula that Garber addresses the typical layout of an obituary as follows: (Name), (Noteworthy Profession/Accomplishment), died at (Age).

Garber brings up the question not only what an obituary is for, but what makes a good obituary.

In the past and even to date, The New York Times have always held their obituaries with high regard and for many, an obit in the New York Times post-mortem is the equivalent of being on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. It is a status symbol that recognizes an achievement of greater accomplishments.

So what of the non-New York Times obituary – the local newspaper obituary. Often times, obituaries are short and dry. They hit all the necessary marks, the name of the person, age, date of birth, residence, partner’s name, and when and where the funeral, viewing, wake or memorial service will be held – all within 150 words.
The problem with obituaries and in concord with Garber, the modern obituary needs to change with the times. Obituaries are a final tribute to celebrating a life lived. They are, as a reputable source has informed me (The Oxford Dictionary), a notice of death, especially in newspapers, usually in the form of a brief biography – and that is what the obituary is lacking today, the biography.

When it comes to obituaries and obituary writing, it shouldn’t be relegated to the Mad Lib formula as Garber mentioned earlier. Rather, the modern obituary should reflect upon what newspapers practice and to which journalists adhere – news is about people and it is people who make much of the news. To this degree, obituary writing should be approached as a news story, therefore, it should be planned as a news story. Key points must be identified, because, like a news story, we are reporting two things: the news of a death and the story of that person’s life.

Do away with the formulas that have rendered obituaries as fillers in a newspaper and make them stand out. Show the personality of the person about whom the obituary is written. A good obituary will make the reader feel as if they had known the person. An obituary should bring a personality to life, even when the body is now dead.

In order to achieve this, it’s important to gather quotes about the person. It can be their own quotes or other people’s quotes. Maybe the person you were writing about was quoted by friends as being “serious about the tasks at hand and the jobs they did, but knew how to have a good time and enjoy the party – in fact they were the life of the party with their dry wit and exaggerated stories”.

In that sentence we have already built an idea of who this person was, the kind of personality they had. It opens up questions for a writer to ask, “What kind of jokes did so-and-so tell,” or “tell me some of those exaggerated stories.”

As mentioned before, everyone has a story and the stories about people can tell you a lot about the person about whom you are writing. If the person you are describing is said to be kind-hearted and charitable, ask to be told about an incident which can help demonstrate this quality. Anecdotes are the best way of telling someone’s story. Like Bill, who as a child was a bit of a pest with his built-up energy and excitability that waned dangerously close to easily distracted. When he and his parents were out for an afternoon stroll, he ran and jumped and complained about how bored he was until his father pointed out a broken branch off in the distance.

“Bill,” he said, “see that branch there, I want you to carry that with you on our walk and when it is time to go home, we’ll build something with it.”

That was it for Bill. The prospect of building something – a canoe, a wooden airplane, a baseball bat – flooded his mind with eager anticipation. He did as his father asked. He carried the stick, remained quiet and enjoyed the walk, thinking to himself how he couldn’t wait to be done so he could build something with the branch.

When their walk was done, father turned to Bill and said, “It’s time for us to go home, Bill. Time to leave the stick.”

Confused, Bill asked his father, “But you said we were going to build something with it.”

“We did,” said his father, “it built character.”

It’s these kinds of anecdotes that help illustrate the personality of an individual. If we were writing an obituary for Bill, this could be a tale of a lesson his father instilled in him, which he carried on all his life. If we were writing an obituary for the father, it could be a tale of how the father could resolve situations easily.

Either way, the story opens up to illustrate the person, the personality and an event that could shape or influence their future lives. But the important thing when writing an obituary is to be honest. There isn’t a person in the world who is perfect and it would be dishonest to write an obituary which ignores the mistakes a person has made. An obituary should be a balanced account of a person’s life, good or bad, it’s what makes us human and it is what makes us feel like we know a person we didn’t.

Finally, when writing an obituary, avoid euphemisms. George Carlin was a strong advocate of this. He called euphemisms soft language, and the ancient Greeks used euphemism as a euphemism meaning “to keep a holy silence” or “speaking well by not speaking at all.” Euphemism is – according to my reliable source (The Oxford Dictionary) – a mild or vague expression substituted for one thought to be too harsh or direct.

Now, because death has only grown to become a frowned upon taboo in western culture, many euphemisms have been used to describe it. Words like interment should be replaced with burial. Instead of saying the deceased or the departed, use their name (unless it is culturally unacceptable to do so).

Because obituaries are often written at the time of a death, it doesn’t leave enough availability to gather relevant information to make an obituary that can outline the life of a person. Therefore, obituary writing should be done much in the same way a person should pre-arrange a funeral. It should be done before the unexpected.

Following in suit of the New York Times chief obituary writer from 1965 to 1976, Alden Whitman – a man regarded as the great literary innovator in the filed of obituary writing, he pioneered a technique which saw him interviewing major figures while they were still alive as he gathered information for their future obituaries.

An obituary, if nothing else, should be the final written allegory of a person’s life. It should express who the person was and humanize them in ways that just because they are dead in body, they are alive in words.

As James Joyce once wrote, “Read your own obituary notice; they say you live longer. Gives you second wind. New lease of life.”

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