Memories from an obituary writer

“You and the rest of the people there can BURN IN HEEELL!” I heard the loud clatter of a phone slammed down, and then the line went still. I felt my heart thumping hugely within my chest and my bottom lip quivering. My ears rung and my palms felt sweaty. I was only three weeks on the job as the paper’s new obituary writer. I only half knew what I was doing—I was still learning, after all—but was working very hard at it. I felt mostly like I swam in paper work, with all the faxes, emails and paper that came through the mail. The deaths piled up on my desk, and I tried to keep swimming and keep my head above them all.

The old, nasty woman didn’t like the headline on her husband’s obituary. It read “Herbert B. Jones, philanthropist, insurance salesman.”

I hear the women’s words in my head: “He ooowned his own insurance company. He didn’t just sell insurance. Don’t you people there know the difference?!” She was livid, enraged, had blown a bona fide gasket, and she downright frightened me. I was so frightened that I couldn’t rightly remember whether it was me who wrote the headline or someone else. After the call mercifully ended, I turned bewildered to the copy editor, who helped sort out the tangled situation. It was discovered that one of the editors rewrote the headline to fit the space on the page. It was not, in fact, my fault, but that doesn’t mean I still didn’t feel like it was.

I’ll never forget that woman. She was the first nasty phone call I got as a reporter. Many would follow but never were any as awful as hers. I felt utterly unworthy to live after that call. She made absolute sure of that. It was, as my colleagues would say, “baptism by fire.” I’m glad, now looking back on it, that I got the worst of it over at first. Afterward, I felt I could handle nearly anything, because if I could get through the angry widow ordeal tear-free, then I could get through whatever I was facing okay, too. And I did.

I wrote the obituaries for a year and six months. They bothered me at first. Each death that crossed my desk saddened me. I felt it personally somehow. The copy editor told me that would soon end, and it did. It wasn’t that I was any less respectful but rather that I also came to accept it as a regular part of life. Just as many people give birth as people die. Everyone knows this, but few really feel it in the way obituary writers do, when deaths sail across their desks every day, mounting into a pile. I got to know a lot of people through doing them. Or at least I imagined I did. Most just came in little paragraph fragments, death notices. So and so lived to 90 years, had 23 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren and retired in the Cayman Islands. She enjoyed water skiing, snorkeling and spending time with her family. Etc.

Some were longer, stretching to the paper’s general limit of 10 newspaper inches. These I put more time into, arranging the information in an orderly, flowing kind of way. These people I got to know better. The weirdest were the people my own age: in the twenties. A few were suicides—which were always conspicuous because the cause of death was never listed—and I wished they would have just waited it out, because so much of life lay stretched before them; anything could, and would have, happened. A few were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I looked long and sad at their handsome faces in uniform on my desk, and I sent up a prayer for their families and imagined thanking them for their service.

Obituaries are sensitive things to write, and you better be sure you get them right. I triple checked my work, looking from the computer screen to the paper of information and back again, repeatedly. But not matter how much you check, unless you’re a machine, you’re bound to eventually get something wrong. But for the most part, I got the facts straight. People imagine obituaries as a legacy, the last thing the deceased’s family and friends read about him or her. I always thought this was silly: How could someone’s life fit neatly into a few inches? It doesn’t. It never will. Nevertheless, that’s how people often feel, silly as it is.

Although the obituary information often came through fax, email and mail, people also came directly to the newspaper office to hand the information to me in person. When these people did come in, I shook their hands and looked into their eyes in the warmest way I could. Sometimes we sat down at the front table in the office, where they explained what they wished for the write-up: “Could you list her aunt?” one elderly woman asked. “I know you don’t typically, but it’d mean so much to her.”

I saw the tear trickle down her wrinkled cheek, and I told her that I absolutely could list her aunt, and even her uncle, too, if she wished. I tried to be for people a spot of comfort in an otherwise difficult death ritual: Arrange with the funeral home, organize the obituary, order the flowers. There was so much to do, so much people just didn’t feel like doing but had to do. I tried to do some good even in what often felt like mundane work.

Sometimes obituary writing could be exasperating. Death can bring out the best and worst in people, as evidenced in the woman who told me to go to hell. I like to think she really didn’t want me to burn forever in fiery torment. I like to think she was mourning deeply and took her grief out on whoever crossed her, which happened that day to be myself. She lashed out. But who knows? Maybe she is just a crotchety old lady, the kind who yells at sales clerks just because there’s a line at check-out. I’ll never know, and I’m okay with that. After all, it makes a good story.

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3 comments

  1. Hmmm….That sounds like a horrible job. I am sure you compassion was seen and appreciated.
    I owned a printing company for many years. Early on and one of my first customers came in and ordered her death announcments….200 I believe. A nice line left blank to fill in the date. That was a bit weird. I am not sure when she died as they didn’t bother addint their printer to the mailing list.

  2. There were parts of it I liked, but I have to admit, I was glad to leave them behind. Surprisingly some people write their own obituaries and death notices, as the woman who came to you wanted to do. Often these people don’t trust another person to write them. They’re kind of the super controlling type, I think. People who have to be in control of their obituary and death notice even after they’ve died. I have to admit when I did the obituaries I often imagined how my own would read someday. But I wouldn’t want to write my own. I think that must feel really strange and surreal to actually do.


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