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Published:March 14th, 2006 06:08 EST
How you write an obituary reveals you as a reporter

How you write an obituary reveals you as a reporter

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

When you’re young, death is strictly for those who are not. Wrong. One of the first things you learn on a police or fire beat is that death is just around the corner. If you don’t believe, try getting an obituary past a sharp editor when you’ve said someone died suddenly or unexpectedly. The obituary is the most important story you ever write, and it will be one of your best-read stories.

If you research and write obituaries well you’re not going to be a conscientious reporter. The obituary is the summing up of a fellow human being’s life. It may not seem consequential to you, and if it doesn’t seem consequential, you had better start looking for that hole in your conscience. An obituary needs to be well researched.

Don’t just cover an undertaker’s pro forma account. That’s who usually gives you obituary material, the undertaker. Some of them are thorough and responsible and can even teach you how to write a good obit, but some of them are lackadaisical and give you information full of holes. It’s your job to jerk them up, and if they can’t help you, go out and get the information yourself. Remember, you’re not writing a paid death notice, you’re writing a person’s life story and it’s going to become part of the keepsakes of more than one family. It’s going to outlive you, so do it right.

If you want a model, never mind the books, just study The New York Times obituaries. They are often researched and written in advance. They tell a story. They look as if a caring fellow human being has written them. Undertakers often use forms on which they collect data from next of kin or close friends or sometimes a nursing home. All too often, the obituaries derived from these forms look like it, and that is a disgrace.

There is something interesting to say about everyone. We are all celebrities in our own spheres. A reporter who is asked to write an obituary and treats it like an unwanted chore is telling the editor something he didn’t say on his job application, namely that he doesn’t have the empathy to walk in a stranger’s shoes, and without that empathy he isn’t going to be a good reporter.