A Day in the Life of Death: Working in the Obituary Department

You don’t tell people to have a good day when they call the Obituary Department.
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Adam Matcho
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You don’t tell people to have a good day when they call the Obituary Department.

You don’t tell people to have a good day when they call the Obituary Department.

After punching in, you check the voicemail. People can be impatient.

Typing my first death notice of the day, I called the first two voicemails back and offered my slow-spoken, thoroughly memorized instructions. One guy asked about a discount for Masons because not only was the deceased a Mason, but he was a Mason, too. There were no discounts for Masons, or anybody else. Everybody paid the same rate per line to run their death in the dailies. Even more on Sundays.

Put off by the Everybody’s Equal policy, the Mason was still thankful.

“Have a good day,” he said.

I said, “Thank you.”

The third message was from a funeral director in Mt. Pleasant. A son who fell into the family business, Ryan was apathetic and direct, as usual. I know a lot of funeral directors around western Pennsylvania, especially Pittsburgh and its suburbs. If anybody dies in this pocket of the state, they usually make their way to my desk.

I typed with the receiver wedged between my shoulder and ear and said, “Hey, Ryan. How’s it going?”

“Not bad, buddy. On this side of the dirt.” Ryan’s laugh was more like a heave, the sound of a choking victim.

My cubicle is slotted in a former warehouse. There are no windows, just drywall and a panoramic print of the Pittsburgh skyline above my computer.

Death notices from Pittsburgh and everywhere else in western Pennsylvania make it to my desk every day.INLINE

Death notices from Pittsburgh and everywhere else in western Pennsylvania make it to my desk every day.INLINE

I said, “Oh yeah, that’s good,” and brought up the obituary Ryan submitted yesterday: a 24-year-old woman from Unity Township in the paper today.

Ryan needed to remove the family’s phone number for tomorrow’s run. They wanted to have a private luncheon after the service. They included the phone number so family and friends could call for details.

“Problem was,” Ryan said, “she was a junkie. Family kept getting calls from all her junkie friends wanting to pay respects. Yeah, right.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get it out of there for tomorrow’s paper.”

With printed news, you’re always writing for tomorrow. Always in terms of the future, even when you’re dead.

Most people don’t make it into the paper. Their obituary is the first, last and only time their name will appear in print. And that is important to the people left living.

To the living, the obituary of a husband, a wife, a child, are the most important words in the paper that day. If there is a typo, an omitted great-granddaughter, a survivor who is no longer married to some other survivor and has since reverted back to her maiden name, you hear about it.

They call the paper early, way before noon, when my shift starts, and leave cryptic voicemails, only their name and number. No context. No way to gauge the best tone to take with that particular grieving person.

That’s what the final voicemail was: a name, a number. Cindy.

Cindy's voice was clipped and uneven. There was a cadence to her speech I kept in mind as I listened to her phone ring. Then, an answering machine: This is Bob and Cindy. Left a message.

“Hi. This is Adam from the Obits Department calling you back. I’ll be here all night, so give me a call.”

Reciting my number, I fanned the morning’s death notices across my desk like a losing poker hand. Death came by email, fax and snail mail. Sometimes it is dictated over the phone.

You tell people we do not accept obits over the phone. Too much room for error. You tell them you need a hard copy. But, sometimes, you end up taking them.

One of my emails was from my boss, the Classified Department Manager. He asked if deaths were down this year in Westmoreland County, because revenue is down, and is that maybe something I would want to look into? He wanted me to email him back.

My boss and I, we’ve gone rounds on this before. He understands I am more concerned about not transposing two letters in one of those crazy last names from Polish Hill than how much money the paper makes. He understands people have to die for this department to make money. He understands I do not consider myself a salesperson. I consider myself an aide capable of typing 70 words per minute, a guide for people who are raw; people who react emotionally and hold fiercely to what they have left of the dead.

Eventually we all die and there’ll be an obituary writer to pen your final words of remembrance.

Eventually we all die and there’ll be an obituary writer to pen your final words of remembrance.

I begin a scathing response. I explain I’m not concerned with how many people died last year in Westmoreland County, or any other county. I remind him I make money for the paper with every obituary I write. He goes to meetings and makes phones calls and gets free Pirates tickets. When he pulls me away from obituaries, he loses money.

The phone rang me out of my email trance and I looked at my cubicle walls, beneath the Pittsburgh skyline, covered with postcards of cows, quotes from Richard Brautigan and Carl Sagan and Dory from Finding Nemo who tells me to just keep swimming. The phone rang again.

“Obituaries. This is Adam.”

You don’t have to sound too enthused on the phone in this department. In fact, upbeat personalities are discouraged.

“Yeah, you let a message on my machine.”

Recalling her rough staccato and misuse of verbs, I said, “Hi Cindy.”

“I wanted to know how much it costs to put an obituary in the paper.”

I said, “It’s by the line, so the length of the notice determines the cost.”

“I don’t have much money,” she said. “I only want a small write up.”

I said, “That’s fine. Can you email us the obituary?”

Cindy couldn’t email the obituary. She couldn’t fax it either. Cindy wanted to recite the obituary.

“It’s just in my head,” she said.

“Sure,” I said and cracked my knuckles, ready to type.

Cindy said, “It’s real short. I don’t have much to say.”

Her husband’s obituary was three sentences: name, age, date of death; the names of his dead parents and Cindy’s name; private services.

I told Cindy it would be $18.

Cindy said, “That’s fine.” Then, “Can I ask you something?”

I said, “Sure.”

“I mean, can you answer a question for real, or are you not allowed since you work for the paper?”

Not sure what Cindy meant, I looked to Tom Waits and Dock Ellis and the obituary of a friend thumbtacked to my walls.

I said, “I can tell the truth.”

“Do you think it’s OK to put this in the paper, if he didn’t want it in there?”

Cindy cleared her throat.

“I really don’t think it will matter to him,” I said. “He’s dead.”

Silence.

Then Cindy was laughing. Then Cindy was crying. She was laughing through her crying.

“This is the first time I’ve laughed in two weeks,” she said.

I was silent. You learn silence is part of this job.

Finally, I said, “You asked for an honest answer.”

“And you gave me one,” she said. “I’ll do it. I’ll take the obituary.”

My boss would probably be proud. I was glad to talk to Cindy, someone who called and needed help. It felt wrong to take her credit card information.

“He had colon cancer and it moved fast,” Cindy said. “He was fine and then he had two months. How do you like that?”

I said, “I’m sorry.”

You learn to say that when people tell you about their grief.

“It’s okay,” she said. “But he didn’t want the pain anymore. He was in bed and he told me, ‘I can’t live like this.’ I knew what he meant. Who wants to live in pain when you know you’re going to die?”

I didn’t say anything.

“When he asked me to get his gun, I did it. I knew it was what he wanted. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

I said. “I’m sorry.”

“I’ve just been living with that,” Cindy said and she was crying again. I hear her breathe in deep like she just came up from underwater. “But I feel better putting this in the paper.”

She said, “Thank you. Thank you so much. Have a good day.”

I said, “You’re welcome.”

I put her credit card information through and read the obituary again. Three sentences.

I went back to my boss and the email with a new tone and vigor. I suggested we, as a newspaper conglomerate, should hope for some natural disaster or mass suicide and maybe that would boost our revenue. I cited increased flash floods in Westmoreland County and the potential for fracking to poison the drinking water.

Then I typed, “They’re obituaries. People die or they don’t.”

I typed my name under that.

Then I erased the email. You have to do that every once in a while, if you want to keep your day job. 

The names and identifying characteristics of those mentioned have been changed to protect their identities.