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More on Obits

By Andy Alexander

My column on The Post’s obituaries desk brought a lot of reader e-mail and calls, most from people who confessed to being obit addicts. They were full praise for the art of obit writing, and they had lots of questions.

For example, a caller wanted to know whether Post reporters interview people for whom they are writing "advance obits" and disclose to them that the newspaper is preparing their obit.

Post obituaries editor Adam Bernstein told me last week that most people are not interviewed for their obituaries. “We don’t have the resources and the luxury of time to set up interviews and go out as much as we’d like,” he said. “But the thing is, so many of these people are well known and have been written about for so long” that many of their views are already known. He noted that it’s unlikely that someone like Henry Kissinger would be inclined to “re-evaluate his entire career” if he knew the interview was for his obit. Bernstein said it's critical to get a “neutral view” for an obit. ”I encourage the writers to contact unbiased authorities in a field to give the assessment of the life,” he said. "Then, they can combine it with the most vivid quotes you can find from the person himself so you can get his voice in there.”

Some publications, however, do interview the subjects of advance obits. One of my favorites: When humor columnist Art Buchwald died in 2007, the New York Times was ready with a marvelous video obit that began with a smiling Buchwald looking into the camera and saying: "Hi. I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died."

Another question: Why does The Post insist that every news obituary list a cause of death. “We view it as important,” Bernstein said, “because it answers the basic question: How did somebody die?” Many newspapers do not include the cause of death if the family asks that it be withheld as a matter of privacy. But to me, that’s cheating the reader. And it can sometimes damage the credibility of a newspaper. For example, many newspapers will agree not to print suicides, especially when they involve teens. But in most communities, word of a suicide will spread quickly. Withholding that information leads a reader to wonder what else the newspaper might be willing to withhold.

My column noted that readership of Post obits has increased in print and online. That prompted one online commenter, kerlin4321, to observe: “Of course readership of obits is up: baby boomers are aging, they are reading about their parents' friends who are dying, their teachers and childhood adults, themselves. No surprises here.” Perhaps. That certainly is understandable for readers of the print product, who skew older. But it would be interesting to see data on the age of online obit readers.

But another reason might be that newspapers have placed increased emphasis on well-written obits. As one reader e-mailed: “I read the obits now because they have better writers.” There may be something to this. “I think more people are discovering them because the quality has risen – not just with us, but in all kinds of publications,” Bernstein said.

A good example was an obit in Sunday’s Post about Jim “King” Corcoran, a fascinating former University of Maryland athlete who led a full – and not altogether honest – life. Post obit writer Matt Schudel described him as “flamboyant, brash and utterly unforgettable. He was a showman, an unapologetic playboy, an egomaniacal self-promoter who traveled with his own PR agent.” The obit prompted an e-mail from a reader who noted that Corcoran had died June 19. The reader wondered why The Post printed the obituary since the newspaper has a policy of not publishing an obit more than 30 days after someone dies. Schudel addressed it in a Post Mortem blog entry: “He died on June 19, and we learned of his death about a week or 10 days later. For a variety of reasons -- Frank McCourt's death, a short-handed Obits desk and lack of basic information -- I was not able to complete the obituary within our usual 30-day deadline.” Schudel’s blog item is as fascinating as the obit itself, because it describes his extensive research in trying to piece together Corcoran’s life. It tells a lot about the detective-like work that goes into reporting a complex obituary.

Finally, I heard from quite a few obit writers, past and present. Several talked about how obituary writing taught them the importance of accuracy. Coincidentally, my colleague Clark Hoyt, the public editor (ombudsman) for The New York Times, used his Sunday column to describe how the newspaper had recently been forced to fix seven errors in an “especially embarrassing correction” on an “appraisal” written by a staffer after the death of famed CBS anchor Walter Cronkite.

There was a time when many journalism schools taught obit writing as the most fundamental form of reporting. Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, e-mailed me to recount his first day as a student at Northwestern University's Medill journalism school in 1970. He was taking a course on basic news writing. As Cohen recalls, he was in “a room full of the best and brightest high school newspaper editors from across the country. Professor walks in, doesn’t utter a word, starts writing names on the chalkboard: Charles Lindbergh, Jesus Christ, Benjamin Franklin, Joan of Arc, Adolph Hitler, Sandy Koufax etc. Prof then goes up and down the rows – ‘pick someone (I take [football star] Jim Brown) and come back in an hour with a 500 word obit on your person.’ Kids haul ass to the library (remember, no Internet or word processors), come back and bang out copy on manual typewriters. After an hour, prof counts the papers without reading a one, and proceeds to tear them up, and barks – ‘Ok, you’ve each written an obituary - you’ll never be unemployed in journalism.’

I was also reminded of my favorite obits desk story. It comes from a friend who was interning at a metropolitan paper in the South during the 1960s. At that time, washed-up reporters often were assigned to the night obits desk, where they took calls from funeral homes that provided basic details about deaths that were to be briefly reported in the next morning's paper. One evening, a veteran on the obits desk showed up for work drunk. The rest of the staff decided to have a little fun with him. One of them called the smashed scribe from an extension phone in the newsroom and dictated the drunk's own obituary. The intoxicated reporter dutifully took down every detail -- his own name, his residence, his age. He then typed it into the form of a short obit and sent it to the copy desk for editing, where it was promptly killed.

By Andy Alexander  | August 3, 2009; 2:07 PM ET
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Of course older people read the obits. Every day I wake up, read the obituaries, and, if my name isn't there, get up, get dressed and continue with my day. I remember, in the early 60s, while working at my college newspaper, hearing of a prank from the late 50s where some students managed to get The New York Times to print the Dean's obituary. Prematurely. I was told he was quite surprised when he came to work and saw the campus draped in black, with faculty and students mourning. Probably not as surprised as the faculty and students.

Posted by: Ex-Fed | August 3, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

With what is coming, you better order more barrels of ink. We're adding cold storage. Circulation could drop though. It looks good. The flower business should see a real boom. Try selling flower ads. Buy buy buy WPO. A good report coming Tuesday.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 3, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I also remember writing an obit for a reporting class at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in 1969. Mine was on then-Mayor Richard Daley. And believe me, the professor read it.

Posted by: barbg1 | August 4, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

In a tenth grade English class, a wonderful teacher, Robert Foley, besides making us appreciate the simplicity of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town", assigned each of us to write an obituary for someone living or dead, without telling us who "died"; that was up to us to decide. He taught us the importance of writing under a short suspense, writing clearly and accurately, and taught us to understand the value of adding "color" or not adding "color". For some students it was an exercise in writing. More of us, however, came away with an appreciation of how important or how influential some people really were, even though they may have been relatively minor or unknown in the eyes or lives of most of people, let alone us.

The exercise, done several times during the year, improved our research skills, our reading skills, our writing skills, and gave some of us a greater appreciation of the "deceased". And, because one of the obituaries was to be on a parent, or the parent of a classmate, you, and your readers, learned information that might have never been reported in any other news story concerning the individual. All the obituaries were reviewed and critiqued as objectively as we reviewed and critiqued Thornton Wilder...and Shakespeare.

Posted by: Dungarees | August 5, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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