19 Mar 2008 9:39 pm   //   Filed under: Media

How we write news obituaries

I had to turn around an obituary about a photographer fairly quickly today. People often assume obituaries are a miserable chore. In fact, writing them is one of the most interesting and important parts of my job. We occasionally prepare an obituaries in advance for noteworthy individuals who are near the ends of their lives, but that’s rare. Most of them we write from scratch on deadline.

An obituary usually starts with a tip – a rumor or an e-mail from a friend or coworker of the person. Word of deaths spreads quickly, and everyone in the office knows to contact me as soon as they hear a rumor of a death. Word of a noteworthy death usually reaches our ears within a day; sometimes we don’t hear about the more obscure ones for a week or two. Sometimes, like today, we see the news first on some other news site and play catch-up.

The next step is to confirm with certainty that the person has died. Direct contact with an employer or family member is preferable; failing that I’m usually comfortable citing a trustworthy news source like the Associated Press. We got a tip recently that a famous photographer had died. I checked a reference book and found that indeed he had died – in 1979.

Once the death is confirmed, I will post a one-sentence bulletin on our blog. Then, research. I Google the subject’s name. I check books on our shelves and look the name up in our magazine’s archive. (Issues before 2000 require digging through print copies stacked in a storage closet.)

Then I begin making phone calls. This varies in every situation, but it isn’t as bad as you think. When calling people who might not know the subject of the obituary has died, a good place to start is “I’m sorry if I’m the first to tell you this, but–.”

For family members and close friends, I always offer condolences and explain exactly what I’m doing. I usually ask for the person to talk about the subject’s personality – that’s where good quotes come from. It’s strange how people are so forthcoming with some personal details, but not with others. I often have to pressure people to tell me the cause of death and the subject’s age. Survivors feel uncomfortable giving that information up, but I an obituary is incomplete without it. Nontraditional family situations are never easy. Was the person married? Were there any children? People often won’t answer those questions. If the person is gay, forget it.

I’m of the opinion that it should all go in the story – divorces, boyfriends, girlfriends, out-of-wedlock children, the whole sum of what the person loved. We need this both for the historical record and to understand the person. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Survivors, having just felt the utter powerlessness of loss, are trying to regain any kind of control over the situation, and controlling information about their loved one is one way that takes shape. I often omit interesting personal facts because sources tell me the information and then insist that I not publish it. Sometimes I push back, sometimes I try to cross-check with a second source, but more often I just let it go.

When the full obituary is ready, my editor gives it a quick read and we publish it online as soon as possible. Two hours is a typical turn-around time. Today I learned of the death at 4 p.m. and we had a 650-word, multi-source obituary online by 6:30. I always hope it’s a fitting tribute to the person, and that our readers will enjoy it and learn something about life.