Observations on obituaries

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I wrote my first obituaries in college on a Monday and a Tuesday. Of the same week. Someone phoned the Daily Forty-Niner  and I was sent first to interview a professor’s grief-stricken daughter, then the professor’s grief-stricken colleagues, and then his grief-stricken students (by phone).

The next day, another grief-stricken daughter called. Same grief, different names. For safety reasons, I interviewed a chemistry professor at the door of a lab while his students did their coursework inside.

I came back that afternoon and the publisher/faculty adviser joked that they were going to make me the obit editor.

That was too much.

“If you send me out to interview another grief-stricken daughter tomorrow, you’re going to have to pay me real money.”

Fortunately, she didn’t punish me for my insubordinate outburst. Happily, that Tuesday obit was my last until I became assistant (now associate) editor at the Catalina Islander. And that obit was years ago.

I hate writing obituaries. I hate reporting obituaries.

Some of the best interviews I’ve done have been for obituaries. Still hate obits.

It isn’t entirely dreadful to interview a loved one if  the departed  died of a long-term illness. The primary caregiver has done the bulk of their grieving already and they come to the conversation still sad but not in a raw emotional state. 

A reporter I worked with years ago tried to protect the family of a deceased person by getting the required information from the coroner’s office. Well, someone at the coroner’s office got a fact wrong and the already grief-stricken family called my colleague to express their displeasure.

The reporter said he would always call the family in the future.

Frankly, I’d rather write a birth notice than write an obit. 

But parents get to write birth notices. Reporters don’t—unless they become parents and I never had that privilege. 

Besides, the sad reality is that more people will know the subject of an obituary and more people will care about the subject of an obituary. The circle of family and friends of a newborn is small. So reporters sometimes write obits—some do so daily at a handful of large news organizations. 

Unlike my colleagues at larger news organizations, I sometimes write obits about people I know. At a large organization, you can recuse yourself. There’s someone else to take up the task. Our Sun office turns out nine newspapers a week. The first time it happened, the man was a casual acquaintance. I interviewed him for a Sidewalk Talk. He died a few days after the interview was published. He had been looking forward to his retirement, so he would have time for the thing he loved most: flying kites.

The next time, it was someone I’d known for years.

When we heard Seth Eaker died, I tried to get confirmation of his death and in the process accidentally delivered the bad news to someone who knew him. (And she, for some reason, apologized to me. I owed her the apology.)

Once Seth’s death was confirmed, it was my job to cover the same-day memorial service at the Marina center. I waited for people to start speaking before I started taking notes. 

Seth and I crossed paths at a local restaurant about a week or so before his death. The tables were full. He was finishing his meal and invited me to sit with him. The server cleared the table and took my order. Seth said something about our friendship and he left. I never saw him again.

I spoke with “Lucky” John Domingue about a week before his death. I don’t remember the conversation. I remember thinking I should reach out to him about a story idea I had. Opportunity lost.

Then a source I trust told me that Lucky John had died. I reached out to one of his friends on Facebook, who suggested a source and helped gather quotes for the story. (Working through an intermediary is acceptable in some circumstances.) Of all the things said or written, Chief Phil Gonshak’s emailed words were  the best and captured the Lucky John better than I could have. But the chief’s remarks were so long, I feared the comments from other people who knew and loved Lucky John would be buried. So I had to put Chief Gonshak’s words near the end of the obit. I didn’t think he would object. After all, Lucky John was entitled to center stage one last time.

It’s not just how much information you get, but how you arrange it, attempting to do justice (whatever that is) to the deceased, their family, your sources, your readers, your organization, and yourself.

I close with a request for everyone in town: Please outlive me.

Charles M. Kelly is associate editor of the Sun Newspapers.

Observations on obituaries