Obit writers are getting a lot of work these days.  And maybe more recognition.  The recognition is long overdue.  The workload?  Growing exponentially from the coronavirus pandemic, with more to come from some states reopening prematurely and, absent social distancing, from large Black Lives Matter protests across the nation.  In the media, Covid-19 has given new life to death.

Years ago, when I was working for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the newsroom had a ghoul pool.  Everyone chose a prominent person, kicked in a buck, and then you hoped your guy would croak first so you could win the pot.  Don’t ask me who wrote the obituaries. My guess is, unless it was some prominent Main Line man or society woman, a wire story sufficed.

At the Washington Post, when I came on board in February 1970, you might be drafted to write an obit, if you were a general assignment reporter not otherwise occupied. If the deceased were local, the first thing you did was confirm the death by calling the funeral home. That’s because there were stories, not all apocryphal, of fake obits.

It was good training for a cub reporter, and it still applies. Two Baltimore city workers were fired recently for faking obits to obtain bereavement leave. Their ruse came to light after they posted vacation photos on Facebook.

In my first ten months at the Post, from Feb. 23 to Dec. 31, 1970, I had more than 100 bylined stories, and seven of them were obits of persons of some prominence.  My first was of actor Ed Begley. Others included “yachtsman” H.S. Vanderbilt; “Congresswoman” Louise Reece, “GOP National Chief’s Widow”; J.W. Krutch, “Critic, Naturalist”; and Admiral Charles M. Cook, “Commander of Pacific Fleet.”  My obituary for King Peter of Yugoslavia, the only royal in the lot, sadly lacked a byline.

For me, these deathly nuggets were an occasional chance to feast on something other than the daily Metro diet of local news.

People, the joke went, were dying to get into the paper. Today, that comes across as more macabre than funny. In the pages of print newspapers – those that remain – Covid-19 has helped to revive a dying business.  If the internet all but destroyed classified ads, printed paid death notices have surged, filling not just a column but columns, sometimes pages—a revenue stream that for now shows no signs of drying up. Here’s one wryly written:

Newspaper Obituary Template Check more at https ...

And lengthy obituaries, even of local figures, have re-emerged in the Washington Post’s Metro section, where brief  obits labeled “community deaths,” once consigned to the web site, now also may appear in print. If there were still any question about the rebirth of death in the paper of record, The New York Times totally killed it with its Sunday, May 24, 2020 front page (plus one whole inside page) of names and bio snippets of 1,000 of this country’s first 100,000 Covid-19 deaths.

As I write this, a little more than two weeks later, the death count has risen to 115,017.

If the obituary desk was once considered the graveyard of newsrooms, where once perhaps illustrious but since fallen reporters went to finish their careers, A-team writers are now being called upon to craft full portraits of the deceased.  Suddenly, becoming an obituary writer is no longer a dead end job.

But lest we forget, there were notable exceptions in the past. Alden Whitman, of The New York Times, pioneered the “advance” obit, deeply researching the lives of the still living.  At the Post, J.Y. Smith, who retired as obituary editor, carried on that tradition, and one of his advance obits  (of Fidel Castro) appeared with his byline nine months after he had died, at the age of 74, in January 2006.

Breaking the mold of mundane formulaic obits, Jim Nicholson, of the Philadelphia Daily News, received the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ first Distinguished Writing Award for Obituary Writing in 1987. Eschewing the rich and the famous, he chose to memorialize the lives of extraordinary ordinary people.

In writing his obit in 2019, Adam Bernstein, the Washington Post’s current obituary editor, recalled Nicholson’s comment on how he decided whose life to feature.  “Who would you miss more when he goes on vacation,” he asked, “the secretary of state or your garbage man?”

In this era of the coronavirus pandemic, suddenly we are all garbage men (and women), and, thankfully, even as the tsunami of big breaking stories cycles on, obits are a renewed staple of news coverage to share our end-of-life stories.

Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite! – JOUR210

9 Comments

  1. Eileen S. McGuckian on June 11, 2020 at 7:57 am

    As a habitual reader of current and historic obituaries, I loved this blog entry!!

    Thanks, Gene!!

  2. allan dodds frank on June 11, 2020 at 10:56 am

    Gene: What a great story, one that brings back so many similar memories for me. I still tell people stories about Alden Whitman. Perhaps the most memorable obit for me that I wrote was in advance for my late mother. On her death bed at 99 1/2, she insisted on seeing my draft and blasted my warming and loving prose, saying: “I am not running for office.” I am happy to report The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – at the direction of David Shribman – did her justice.

    Stay Healthy!!! Allan Dodds Frank

  3. Tom Lansworth on June 11, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    I have always read the obituaries in whatever newspaper(s) graced my doorstep each morning (depending where home happened to be any given year). Years ago, the Des Moines Register had a policy of publishing an obit on every local death. Most were just 3 or 4 paragraphs, which more often than not still managed to capture some essential element of the life that was now over.
    For the departed famous, I am most interested in what the obit can say about their origins and the arc of their lives. And, of course, as I have grown older, I find that I pay more attention to ages and causes of death.
    I also find interesting the NYTimes current project of running occasional obits about those who deserved notice but were overlooked when they died (often decades ago).
    Thanks, Gene, for reminding us that obituaries are more about life, than death.

  4. Beryl Benderly on June 11, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    Hi, Gene–
    I enjoyed this post but would respectfully like to note that the Post has, in my opinion, a disgraceful history of giving short shrift to the deaths of local people. Even during the glory days when ad revenue was plentiful, the space accorded to local obits was shamefully scanty. Now, people are paying to run long death notices because they know they have no chance of getting respectful coverage in a news obit. I know friends who have struggled to get one placed, only to see a few hackneyed paragraphs appear weeks late. Where I come from, the Star-Ledger and the much lamented Newark Evening News led their quite adequate obits with “Services for X will be held on….” and they even generally nailed the Jewish funerals in time. Adequate obituary coverage is, in my opinion, a basic responsibility of a local newspaper. The Post, of course, considers itself too elite to be a true community paper, which, in this regard, in my opinion, is an indignity to the people who have long supported the paper. I know that this isn’t the fault of the reporters who write the stories, but I think it is a factor that deserves mention.

    • Gene Meyer on June 11, 2020 at 12:49 pm

      Too bad the Post no longer has an ombudsman. This subject cries out for a public critique and discussion. The Columbia Journalism Review now has its own Wash Post “ombudsman” you could contact. .

  5. Chuck Kaufman on June 11, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    The obituary section is one of the few reasons why people still buy newspapers, though now it has become a major source of revenue for broadsheets. Young readers don’t seem to care as, after all, they’re going to live forever. Of course, without box scores and reliable delivery, I’m finding less reason to continue any subscription to a daily.

  6. Ed Jasek on June 14, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    Greetings, Mr. Meyer,
    I wonder how many of your readers recall the days of the free obit. When the likes of Frank Hanlon, George Staab & Henry Darling (among others) turned out clean, accurate send offs by the 9:20 a.m. daily deadline. Nearly everybody read The Evening Bulletin and the paper always found space to record their departure. I don’t recall the ghoul pool but do recollect Hank Darling saying “they’re dying like flies, Ed” as he handed me a short take.
    To say I enjoyed your piece should suffice, except when I see
    “an obituary writer is no longer a dead end job” and “Covid-19 has given new life to death.” and realize that a master wordsmith is still at work.

    Best Regards

    • Gene Meyer on June 14, 2020 at 7:37 pm

      How nice to get your note and your kind words. I well remember George Staab, whose beat was the military, and Hank Darling, ace rewriteman and all around nice guy. Did our paths cross at the Bulletin? I was there roughly 9/65 – 12/69.

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