If the local newspaper editor hires a new reporter who rubs some folks the wrong way, and one of them is old and dying and says she won’t let him write her obituary, but suggests the nice woman—me—who writes the Duly Noted column (as in Bev Jones traveled to Hawaii to spend a week with daughter Ashley…And yes, the names are in bold face) could do it, and she does, that’s as good a way as any. That’s how I began writing obituaries, and I still do them.
The small town thing: Anyone ever get upset over one of your obits?
Mostly I think people are happy with them. My obits are not exactly my best writing, as the Chilkat Valley News editor sticks to AP style, and often edits to suit his voice, so what is in the paper is often not exactly what I wrote. Most criticisms are due to that editorial policy. For instance, I had identified an elder’s grand niece and nephew as simply the “twins” since space is always an issue, and their names—Trevor and Taylor—were already in the survived-by list later in the obituary. In the version published in the paper my editor identified them as twin boys. I felt terrible when the family called to ask how I could have not known Taylor was a girl when she was sitting right next to me, and of course I knew who she was anyway. That was awful.
How does that process work? Who calls you? What’s your word count?
The process begins when someone dies. I hear about it pretty quickly, as this is a small town. Sometimes I know before anyone calls me, as I swim at the pool early in the morning, and pass the garage at the fire hall that is used as a morgue, and if the door is open about six inches, I know there’s a body in there, as the refrigeration compressors need to be vented. Then I call the paper and either tell my editor who it was who died if I know, and that I’m on it, or ask if he knows who is in the morgue. After that it’s a lot of local knowledge—a sudden death on the weekly paper’s deadline may mean we put a death notice in Duly Noted, and hold the obituary for next week, as it is too hard to meet and write it that soon after the calamity. If it’s an old person, who has been in hospice care for months, the family and friends may be able to talk right away, and often they will call me to come on over and interview them.
The obituaries are part a kind of standard template, beginning with who died, when, and of what, then what he or she were known for in town, and a quote from a family member or friend that identifies them in some way, a bit about their life in Haines, what they did, what they were like—then the biographical details, where and when they were born, reared, education, schooling, etc, followed by a story or two about them, and ending with the survived-bys, in lieu of flowers donation, and service info. Sometimes there may be a reflection that is personal and a nod to the death. A teenager killed in a car wreck might conclude with his mother saying, “If I could say anything to the kids at the high school it would be slow down, and never drink and drive.” Or when a popular middle aged store owner dies skiing, “ It’s still hard to believe he’s gone. Haines won’t be the same without him.” Something like that. There’s always a photo, too.
Usually obituaries have at least three sources who are quoted, much like a profile might.
My word count changes on the length of the paper, which is determined by ad content. Haines is a very seasonal place, so winter papers are usually eight pages, summer papers can be as long 16 pages. Typically the obituaries average around 600 words, some are longer, some shorter. I always ask my editor how long before I begin, and sometimes he says write long, sometimes he says write short, and sometimes he says, “Make it like a woman’s skirt, short enough to keep it interesting and long enough to cover the material.” Which is sort of sexist, I know, but I let it go. I don’t write obituaries for the money ( $75 each) or the publication of them. I do it as a community service, it is what I can do to help when death knocks on the door, and because I seem to be good at it, both in the gathering of material and the sifting through it to what’s important. Also, for some reason I don’t know, I am able to walk into a grieving household, and help them with something no one ever wants to do, and when I leave, I think they feel better for having talked to me. I also spend a lot of time with grieving friends, and think I do some good there.
Give us a few tips on the writing and research of an obituary.
Look for concrete details. My editor used to say to me “prove it,” and so I do. If the family says Dad was generous to a fault, I ask “how so?” Turns out he was traveling with two boatloads of fellow moose hunters down the Yukon River, and when one boat lost the motor, he gave them his and then had to row his boat the rest of the trip. That’s a certain kind of generous. The same is true if someone says a former bartender at her family’s bar was a real spitfire. I ask how? And I hear, “My father used to keep a loaded shotgun behind the bar to keep the peace, then he had a cattle prod, then a Billy club, and then he hired Nellie Dale.” Also, pay attention to dates, and double check military claims—I had one man whose family insisted he had been a paratrooper in Korea. But he wasn’t old enough. He would have been 10 or something during the Korean conflict. Turns out a little digging with the American Legion records revealed he had a much more interesting and unique service career. He parachuted onto Grenada during that brief invasion.
What makes for a well-lived life? What do I need to get in order here?
It’s all about relationships. Be nice to people, do things that matter to others. It’s that simple and that hard.
When it’s all said and done, what really matters?
Love. That’s not a cliché. It’s true. I had an old catholic priest say something to me, which I’ve never forgotten, when I was writing the obituary of a man who was burned to death when his stove exploded. The guy was great, funny and good—but not a churchgoer at all, and one of his Christian friends expressed concern that he wouldn’t go to heaven. I asked Father Blaney about that, and he replied, “Have you been good to God’s people? If you can answer yes, then you’ve got it made.” That’s it. Love each other.
A lot of writers I know (including me) struggle with endings. Obituaries are endings to endings. The grand great ending. How do you craft that final ending?
Luckily, the Chilkat Valley News format determines a less than grand ending—it is often more like, “Memorial donations may be made to The Haines Animal Rescue Kennel.” That said, in every obituary I try to have a quote by someone who cared about the deceased that says something wise and true about that particular life, that moves anyone reading it, even if they had never met the person. (And of course, I use what I have learned writing these obituaries and write books about all that, and I hope have some grand endings inside them some place.)
What’s the trick to writing optimism without seeming hokey?
Gosh, I don’t know—some people would say I’m hokey. If there is a trick, maybe it is to be unapologetic and realistic. I know bad things happen all the time. Everybody I write about is dead, after all. I’m reminded more often than most people how lucky I am to be here still, and it seems wrong—almost mean or disrespectful—to spend however much time I have left in a bad mood. There’s just no good in that.
Will you write your own farewell? If not, who would you want to write yours?
I won’t! And I don’t really care who does. It may sound odd, coming from me, but it’s just an obituary, and it’s not about the writing so much. The “best” details have to come from the way I live, the things I do and say and share, so you could argue that I’m writing my obituary everyday—and so are all of us.
Would you rather write engagement announcements? I gave it some thought after reading your book, whether I would want the obit beat. I know it would teach me much about life and be rich and I’d rather do that than the society page—but I just don’t know if I could take the weight.
I did that with Duly Noted, and I dropped it after a few years. I have kept writing obituaries because they record how the people in this small Alaskan town spent their lives, and I think that’s important for the future, that somewhere, years from now, students can look them up and know how ordinary people lived, here and now, not just celebrities or famous men and women. Which sounds grand, and maybe I’m kidding myself, but I believe that. As the weight, sometimes I can’t stand it and I take a break, and someone else writes them for a few months. I quit once, 15 years ago, after writing of the death of a young fisherman who was a dear family friend. I couldn’t stand it. But then people asked where I was, and wanted me to do it—and so I did. One recent death, another young man drank too much and shot himself—was so sad I almost cried when I talked with the family, which is something I never do. It’s a comfort, I’ve learned, to be steady for them, not a wreck. But after I got in my car, I howled. His mother hugged me at the funeral and thanked me for the beautiful obituary, so I’m still writing them.
HEATHER LENDE has contributed essays and commentary to NPR, the New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler, among other newspapers and magazines, and is a former contributing editor at Woman’s Day. A columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News, she writes obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News and is the author of If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, and Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs.