The Pleasures of Writing Obits About People Not Prominent, Rich, or Notorious

By Barnard Law Collier

At the New York Times of the 1960s, the staff-written obituaries that appeared in the back pages were usually required to include in the first paragraph or two that So-and-So from Wherever was dead, the age, and cause of death.

Obits were perhaps the only stories in the newspaper that began with the end.

The close of a life is clear and un-illusive. The job for an obit writer is to describe, as accurately, artfully, and respectfully as possible, the real-life character of the person whose life has ended in the lead.

The other obligation was that obituaries were to be written by a Times staff member and to be worth a staffer’s time the deceased should be prominent, rich, or notoriousIn brief, Times obit must be about “a somebody.”

I enjoyed at the Times the pleasures of writing stories that ignored regulations.  So whenever I had too little to do at the metro desk, I pinned to a cork board the newsroom’s mortuary list of people who had died within a day or so. I picked a name by throwing a dart at the page. I vowed to make of that randomly selected name a worthy story of an unsung life.

If I got a name by, say, 10 a.m. then I had roughly nine hours to do all the reporting and writing before the 7 p.m. deadline.

First task was telephoning the survivors of an unknown soul, hypothetically, “Norman Caldwell, 89, congestive heart failure” at a city address or hospital.

Next was to track down by telephone the funeral home, then the survivors to gain their confidence, to dig gently for their stories and to begin a chain of tracking calls and interviews, to ask them to recommend others with good stories to tell, and cobble it all together, and finally to write.

The same thing usually happened at the beginning of each story. After I identified myself as a Times reporter who was interviewing for an obituary about Mr. Norman Caldwell in tomorrow’s newspaper, whoever answered the telephone would ask essentially the same question:

“What did Norman ever do to get the New York Times interested in doing his obituary?”

My response: “Why don’t you tell me?”

So they did, because they felt privileged to do under-appreciated Norm the public honor.

They comfortably told close personal stories, jokes, eulogies, secret slurs, “with all due respects”, good habits, nicknames and how they got them, bad habits, embarrassing moments, moral and physical triumphs, religious rote, and much more, including a scrap or two of cold revenge.

I’d often hear perplexed things like:

“Look, Norm was just an ordinary guy. He owned a granite quarry in North Carolina. He did okay with the stone, loved the theater, married a Caribbean woman from Brooklyn Heights, and fathered five children who’ve all gone to college. His company quarried and cut the granite for tens of thousands of cemetery headstones in the New York area, plus the counter slabs for maybe a quarter million local kitchens. But hardly anybody outside the neighborhood knew his name.”

And so on . . . all about Norm, this ordinary guy.

The most satisfying part of writing the obit of a nobody is talking to family members and friends who are thrilled to tell you the truest sort of stories about the departed. They tell tales that a reporter would never hear if the subject were around.

Times editors appreciated good stories and bent the “sort of person” rules without a qualm. Other writers and reporters, most notably the late Mickey Carroll, took on obits of nobodies as an exercise and an avocation. However, editors never granted any leeway about what must be found in paragraph one.

Sometimes this roulette wheel randomness landed on a name that carried a story so poignant it brings tears to a reporter’s eyes. But in the course of dozens of obits of nobody, I found that tragedies were well outnumbered by the joyful comedy that people remembered in the lives of the gone but not forgotten.

If I had a respected and respectful place to publish obits where “locals” would read them, and to share with an ordinary public the recognition of an “ordinary” life, I’d gladly create the obit of a nobody three times a week for the adventure of it.

I’d also wager that the stories of almost all the dead local nobodies will enjoy more attention than almost any “foreign” somebody.

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.

Comments

  1. Timothy Hays says:

    Great recollection! Fun— and (truthfully) real journalism.

  2. The obits in the Washington Post are now almost all national and international figures—the only locals with a decent chance to get a Post obit are people who once worked there (only half-kidding). If you read the Post’s paid death notices, you find locals who led very interesting lives. My guess is they don’t get a Post obit because they don’t help the Post’s drive for more digital traffic nationally and internationally. I think that’s one result of the integration of print and digital staffs—what gets clicks on the Internet increasingly helps determine what appears in print.

  3. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    I still perhaps naively believe that on almost all the social media, with the possible exception of the twits, a good obit that is crafted with “ordinary” material, exceptional taste, and good luck can score virus-level with almost the true life of any randomly picked dead person, provided the all-out effort is put forth by a good writer (or writers) and a good editor (like for cooks, one’s enough) to find people who feel privileged to colorfully remember a departed life.

    How interesting it might be if a few of the Post’s or the Times’ really observant, investigative, character sensitive reporters did some virtuoso licks with an obit about a nobody.

    My guess is that the best of them would come up with obits of nobodies that will make people laugh, cry, like, and share, especially if there’s a really character revealing picture with it.

    It’s my feeling that the obit of a randomly selected nobody should take no longer than a day to create and publish, unless a super-extraordinary character gets hit and more than a day’s hard work for a staffer is worth the cost,

    Workwise it’s like running a half-marathon if the best stories are located and mined, I’d highly recommend the creation of obits of nobodies only to those who are young at heart.

    I’d also stipulate that name, age, cause of death, and known residence be contained in every lead paragraph so that for good writers there is an even playing field.

    Best, Barney

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