The very first attempt I made at journalistic writing was a fictional obituary as an academic exercise in an evening course at the Columbia School of Journalism. It never occurred to me at the time that I would go on to write and edit hundreds (and hundreds) of them.
Not long afterward, I married into the Star family and began writing obituaries for real. Ev Rattray, whom I met at the journalism school and who had come home to edit the paper, set the standard: Obituaries were not to be written by rote, and they were to celebrate the life of those who died.
At first, I found calling grieving family members very trying — believe me, it’s not easy to pick up that phone and attempt to ask questions with sympathy and sensitivity — but I soon learned that many were often, if not exactly pleased, at least somewhat relieved to talk about their loss.
As I have gotten older, I must admit, I’ve found myself handling far too many obituaries for contemporaries, for people I knew well, but it always remains gratifying to find something significant to add, whether it is a small, telling detail that illuminates character or a notable accomplishment that reminds the reader of just how much was lost. This has become harder to do as the community has grown, but we try.
This week I found myself editing an obituary about a 90-year-old man I had never met. His family had given us material about his remarkable professional life. They had little to say about his long connection with this community, however, so I took the time to find out and to add something to what they had given us. I hope they will be satisfied with the result.
Overfamiliarity with these matters comes at a certain peril, sometimes. A man I know told me something a week or so ago about his wife that was quite wonderful but little known. Because I spend a lot of time working on and thinking about obituaries, I blurted out — with an embarrassing lack of mindfulness — that I was going to write down what he had said and make sure it got in our archives so that it wouldn’t be forgotten when it came time to write her obituary. Naturally, he was quite taken aback, so I quickly added, “Thirty years from now, of course!” Oh, dear.
I managed to check my tongue before I got around to injecting my plans for my own obituary into the conversation. Although I intend to be around a long, long time before anyone else has to think about it, I’ve had plenty of professional hours to ponder it. Ev Rattray, who was 47 when he died, had written his own obituary in anticipation of his final out. I think I will make it a family tradition.