Late Night in Lafayette Cemetery New Orleans. Photo by enigmaarts.

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The Art of the Remarkable Obituary

Everything you’ve learned about obituaries is probably wrong.

True, the reason for an obituary is sad—someone died—but that’s no excuse for an obituary’s being the journalistic equivalent of a headstone—a grim, undistinguished slab of an article announcing the particulars of the person’s death, followed by a plodding recitation of such facts as education, career path, honors, and, finally, the names of surviving family members and information about the funeral. Take away the names and there’s no way to distinguish one of these boring stories from another.

That’s not the way it should be. In Ann Hood’s novel The Obituary Writer, the title character said an obit must express the dead person’s personality. Margalit Fox, one of the best obit writers the New York Times ever employed, said that the fact of a person’s death shouldn’t occupy too much space because the purpose of an obituary is to celebrate that person’s life.

That celebration can, believe it or not, include wit. In her obituary of Helen Gurley Brown, the author of Sex and the Single Girl and the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Fox wrote this sentence, which ran on the Times’s front page: “She was 90, but parts of her were much younger.” And I said that Iler Pope, a beloved New Orleans restaurateur, “possessed a vocabulary that could peel paint off a wall.”

In Adam Bernstein’s obituary of Cloris Leachman for the Washington Post, the online version includes links to YouTube footage to let readers savor highlights of Leachman’s career, including her dramatic Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show and her flair for comedy in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Young Frankenstein (“Blücher!”).

Bernstein is president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, which encourages its members to experiment with obituaries to enliven a specialty that has, for far too long, been regarded as the Siberia of journalism, a place that provides busywork to teach rookie reporters how to organize a story and a last, dreary stop for veteran scribes as they’re heading for the exit. (Disclosure: I’m a Society member. We call ourselves Grimmies.)

We Grimmies strive to rise above such stereotypes because we believe that what obit writers do is noble, even if the people we’re writing about may be somewhat less so. It’s noble because we call attention to people’s lives and do so in such a way that readers wish they had known those individuals. By performing this service, we’re living up to Linda Loman’s admonition near the end of Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid.”

But how to provide what we in the trade call a good sendoff?

Like so much else in life, it starts with reading. In addition to reading about the dead people we’re going to be writing about, reporters should always study other obit writers’ techniques—online and in newspapers and obituary anthologies—to pick up hints for improving their writing. (I’m especially fond of British obits because they can be delightfully cheeky. A particular favorite of mine is the story of a Royal Air Force ace who was a cross-dresser.)

In my pursuit of self-improvement, I was lucky enough early on to come under the influence of Alden Whitman, who made a reputation at the New York Times for his long, immensely detailed obituaries of notable people all over the world. (Gay Talese captured his personality and work habits in an Esquire piece, “Mr. Bad News,” which is also found in Fame and Obscurity, a collection of some of Talese’s articles.)

Unlike most reporters, who have to be creative on tight deadlines, Whitman had the luxury of being able to prepare many of his obits in advance after months of plowing through clippings and, often, interviewing the people he was writing about.

These luminaries were often delighted to talk to him, not only for the prestige value of a New York Times obituary but also for the opportunity to settle scores, knowing that the stories wouldn’t appear until they were safely dead. Bette Davis, who was always happy to speak her mind, even mixed a pitcher of martinis for herself and her interviewer once she learned why a Times reporter had come to interview her. (“Now let’s talk,” Davis purred as she poured, according to the article I read about that encounter.)

This work style sounds splendid, but there’s a downside: You can’t dawdle because you never know how much time you have. On the one hand, I finished the obit of the Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme twenty-seven years before he died, but on the other hand, several subjects died within hours after I filed their stories.

For those of us who aren’t on the glamour beat, these opportunities for long, analytical obituaries are rare. Most reporters have to write obituaries on deadline, which means they need to have immediate access to all sorts of experts and, of course, the internet to work their magic. It’s what all reporters are expected to do, regardless of their beat or their assignment.

I’ve been writing obituaries for New Orleans newspapers for slightly more than forty years. I was lucky when I started down this path because I had an editor with a fondness for such stories, especially the longer ones I had to do in advance. He not only encouraged me but also took me aside occasionally to mutter discreetly that I had better get busy with a certain individual’s advance obit because that person wasn’t looking good.

Getting the basic details of a person’s life and death is vital, of course, but what about getting that individual’s personality into the obituary? We obit writers are reporters, and the only way to gain personality insights is to ask questions—lots of questions—at a ferociously difficult time for the dead person’s family and friends. But questions must be asked—politely, of course—to make a story happen.

Politeness is vital here—not the sticky-sweet variety but basic civility—because we reporters don’t have subpoena power and sources can shut down at any moment or, worse yet, complain to our bosses if they feel we’re being too pushy. Moral: Tread lightly.

What to ask? When I start working on an obit, I feel like the man in Citizen Kane who is assigned to find out what the media mogul Charles Foster Kane meant by his last word: “Rosebud.” The rest of the movie follows his quest to explain Kane’s personality.

Whenever I write an obituary, I’m looking for Rosebud. I may not invoke the movie—not everybody is a cinema nerd—but I keep asking what made the dead person tick.

In these sessions, a reporter must let an interviewee get through the banalities—“He loved his family” and “She never met a stranger,” for example—before asking again, politely, about the key to the individual’s personality. (Once again, tread lightly. You can’t grill these people because they’ve just lost a relative or a dear friend and are grief-stricken.)

They will invariably say they don’t know, but they know. Believe me. It just takes time and patience—and a few more questions—until the facts tumble out.

For instance, a longtime friend called to tell me her father had died. He had been a letter carrier for decades. He knew everybody on his route, and he remembered birthdays and anniversaries, and his customers were wild about him. In other words, he was a perfectly fine, average man.

All that information was lovely, but not remarkable. Then I asked her if she had anything else to say about her father, and I’ll never forget what happened next. After a pause, she said, “Well, Pope, in World War II, he was a spy.”

Jackpot! “Cool!” I said, and pressed for details.

Her father, who was in the army, was one of the few African Americans in counterintelligence. He was assigned to go to pubs along the English Channel—probably the hangouts for other black GIs—to see if word of the D-Day invasion might be leaking out.

He also was one of the few African Americans—if not the only African American—to be assigned to be part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s security detail during one of Roosevelt’s overseas trips during the war.

All this material was an obit writer’s dream. The payoff, my friend told me, came at the funeral, when friends approached her and her brother to tell them they had no idea of this side of their father’s past.

My friend’s reply: “You never asked.”

Everyone has at least one good story tucked away—maybe not so spectacular as a career in espionage, but interesting nonetheless. It’s up to obituary writers to harvest such vignettes. After all, if not for the obituary—the last time a person’s name will appear in print—then when?

Another way to limn personality is through details because they reveal a lot. For instance, I was assigned an obituary of a municipal court judge, an elected official who usually hands down judgments in misdemeanors.

Like the letter carrier, this man certainly was a solid citizen, but nothing struck me as obituary-worthy.

Then his son told me of his father’s habit, every weekday morning for decades, of stopping in at a pancake house on Canal Street on his way to work for a breakfast that never varied: raisin-bread toast and coffee.

But I realized as I listened that the food was a secondary reason for this routine. The attraction was the cross-section of humanity the judge would encounter, from lawyers to sewer workers. For a little while each day, he was one of them. I think his delight in the friendships he struck up there helped explain how he stayed on the bench for thirty years.

He wasn’t glamorous, and most of the people whose obits I have written were hardly boldface names. But they have been the people who, I think, help make up the warp and woof of this community—the foundation that makes New Orleans the delightfully quirky place that it is.

I’m not the only person who feels strongly about writing about these folks. In her Oscar acceptance speech in 2017, Viola Davis said creative men and women can find inspiration in cemeteries, where people from all walks of life lie side by side.

“There’s one place (where) all the people with the greatest potential are gathered,” she said. “Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories.”