IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Wrote Obituaries for a Living

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started writing obituaries, but it taught me more about life and death than I ever could have predicted.
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Carly Lane
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I wasn't sure what to expect when I started writing obituaries, but it taught me more about life and death than I ever could have predicted.

I was just out of college and desperate.

As an English major with a concentration in creative writing, my job options were limited at best. Never mind the fact that I'd already made the decision to move back in with my parents after four years at an out-of-state school. I knew I had to start working somewhere. The search was starting to look long and fruitless — so fruitless that my own mother started helping me look — which was how we stumbled across it.

"Look," she said, pulling up the online post. "They need a writer!"

It was a job listing in a local newspaper's classified section. They were looking for a writer, alright, for someone to write their obituaries and death notices.

My first instincts were mixed, at best. An obituary writer? There was something equally morbid and fascinating about it. I would not just be writing,  but writing about death. I was more curious than I wanted to admit, and I was determined to find a job that would allow me to keep writing.

So I applied, waited with bated breath, and then, to my surprise, was called in for an interview.

Everything happened in a blur after that. I was ushered through the necessary proofreading tests, trained on the newspaper's formatting standards, and taught how to use the layout system on the computer. 

Essentially, I would be completing and structuring any obituary that was placed and paid for in time for it to post in the corresponding publication. (There were four different newspapers I was writing for at the time, all under the same masthead.)

It all seemed pretty straightforward. We'd receive the copy from the family or the funeral home, mostly via e-mail, though sometimes in person. Obituaries were fairly straight information, "just the facts" as I was always told. Death notices, on the other hand, were meant to be more personal, to allow the family to offer more of a dedication to the deceased. 

Sometimes there would be a photo, usually black and white. (Color was an additional cost.) Or we'd include a graphic of a U.S. flag if the deceased had served in the military.

New York Times Obituary

It wasn't "The New York Times," but it was writing. Photo by Daniel Norton.

Initially, I was filled with a kind of odd excitement at the opportunity of getting to write again. I might have been looking toward the newsroom with an expression of longing from time to time, envying the reporters who rapidly typed away at their keyboards, stacks of old papers piled on their desks — but I was writing, too.

When you write about someone's life, and about someone's death, you start to realize that it's not as simple as typing the words on the screen and hitting the button to send to print. This is something that people are going to clip out and save, to hold onto until the paper starts to yellow and curl. An obituary preserves, like a memory of someone. It's important.

I wasn't just locked away in a remote section of the office, either. I was answering phones, dealing with families or funeral home representatives. I was sitting down with the walk-in customers who would choose to place an obituary in person. I learned that people wear grief in different ways.

I remember a man who bellowed at me over the phone and threatened to have me fired, all because I told him we couldn't include a portion of text in italics in his mother's death notice. But I also remember an old woman who sat next to me, tears silently streaming down her face as she gently pressed a picture of her husband as a young man into my hands. There was the family of at least 10 who crowded the waiting room, all talking loudly on their cell phones about various funeral arrangements as I took down an obituary about their deceased father.

It seemed too that, in death, all the ugly drama between families would rear its head. All the secrets that had either been glossed over or ignored in life were resurrected with a vengeance. One man's family placed an obituary in the paper — only to be challenged by the man's other family, whom he had been keeping under wraps. They later almost came to blows right out in the parking lot. (We eventually allowed both versions to run.)

Mistakes were not an option, and almost unforgivable. All the information had to be perfect. I ruthlessly checked and double-checked the spelling of survivors' names, of birth places and hometowns, of colleges, and places of employment. There were inevitably corrections that had to be printed, on occasion. But my need to ensure that everything was right made the number small.

At the end of the day, I would only have the energy to greet my parents half-heartedly before shuffling up the stairs to my room. How could I tell them that I barely had the capability for human conversation after such an emotionally draining workday? I wasn't just a writer. I was a grief counselor, a family therapist, and a customer service representative all wrapped up in one.

A few months after I started working for the paper, my grandfather passed away. Days after that, I was forwarded the link to his obituary in the local paper up in New York. There was the text I had come to memorize, having read it over and over again. He is survived by . . . Interment will be . . . In lieu of flowers, please . . .

But there was also so much about his life and his accomplishments. He had been a mapmaker and a German interpreter during World War II before becoming a high school music teacher. He was an avid gardener. All these things I'd known, but had never seen them laid out in print.

"Who wrote this?" I'd asked my parents.

My grandmother was the one who had paid such a loving tribute to her husband, who had somehow condensed all 89 years of his life into just a few short paragraphs.

Finally, I understood.

It couldn't have been easy, when there's so much you want to say after losing someone. Emotions, feelings — they're all translated into fine print. It's making the personal impersonal, taking a three-dimensional person and reducing them into a one-dimensional script. Getting a glimpse from the other side allowed me to realize the value of what I was doing for other people. If I could help them encapsulate part of the memory of the loved one they'd lost, the emotional toll it took would be more than worth it.

I left the paper after two-and-a-half years, and I confess that there's a lot about it I don't miss. But I wouldn't change the experience. It helped me to understand much more about death, and loss, and grief. And every now and then, I'll flip through a newspaper, past the articles and opinion pieces, and linger on the page with the photos of the deceased and the remembrances in black and white copy.