Anatomy of a great obit
By Jamie Passaro • January 19, 2018
Avid readers of obits know when we’ve found a good one. For many of us the pursuit of a well-written tribute is why we’re reading the obit page in the first place. To get someone’s essence just by reading words on a page or on a screen, that’s a bit of a thrill first thing in the morning. “What calm satisfactions they afford . . .” writes Russell Baker in the foreword to The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells, A Celebration of Unusual Lives. “… Stimulants to sweet memories of better times, to philosophical reflection, to discovery of life’s astonishing richness, variety, comedy, sadness, of the diverse infinitude of human imaginations it takes to make this world.”
Yes, indeed, that’s all there on the obit page. But just what goes into writing a good obit?
When it comes to obits, specifics reign. Sure, you can write that someone was a great cook or a great gardener, but even better to say she was the kind of cook who would make individual cheese souffles for twenty all while drinking wine and chatting or that she was the kind of gardener who left zucchinis on the front porches of everyone within a two-block radius at the end of every summer.
Imperfections and Contradictions
Or, what if that someone was not a good gardener at all but kept trying every year, kept battling it out with the weeds and the aphids for a very low yield? Now that’s telling. Obits tend to celebrate people’s successes but their flaws and contradictions say just as much and can be endearing and relatable and far more interesting than awards and accomplishments (though those have their place too). Did he love to sing in the car but sang off-key with enthusiasm? That’s a good detail. I love these lines from Kay A. Heggestad’s 2017 obit: “She was raised Roman Catholic and got a very good education in the Catholic school system. She used that education to help people by correcting their grammatical errors, even if no one asked her to.”
One of my favorite obit opening lines is from a 2003 New York Times obit about the owner of a lingerie shop. The writer, Douglas Martin, nails it with just the right balance of pertinent details and a wry punchline. “Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B.”
It’s not just about being clever. There’s a certain honest warmth that some obits exude. These are the ones that do more than list survivors and education and employment history but offer a window into the deceased’s unique personality. I love this line from a January 14, 2018 obit in The New York Times for Monica Dorenkamp: “She would be annoyed if her rescue cat Winston were not also mentioned.” We learn a lot about Dorenkamp here. She had a rescue cat named Winston. She loved it fiercely. She was playful enough that her obit writer felt confident to mention a posthumous irritation.
An Extra Something
Once I was reading an obituary in the Eugene Register-Guard, and it said the person who died had been out in her yard one day and was photographed by the Google Earth camera. It was an odd detail to include but then I saw it: the secondary photo with the obit was that very photo from the Google cam. It caught me off guard and made me smile and I even talked about it later in my day.
Maureen O’Donnell of the Chicago Sun-Times won an award from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers for her obituary of Phyllis Larson, the Turkey Talk-Line expert who rescued flustered holiday meal makers. It’s a great obit, full of warmth and details about Larson’s fifteen years working the hotline. My favorite part, though, is that O’Donnell included a recipe for Larson’s Swedish meatballs. It was a nice addition to the obit, recipe as legacy. Lines from favorite songs, plays, movies are also a meaningful touch.
As more and more obits are read online, recordings and video diaries are also an option. For instance, this recording of a tearjerker conversation between author and filmmaker Amy Krouse Rosenthal and her daughter, which is featured along with Rosenthal’s obit in The New York Times.
A well-written obit has a strong narrator and also offers a few well-chosen quotes from friends or family members, with whom the obituary writer has interviewed. An obit in the Eugene Register-Guard for Gary L. Crum recently quoted a friend of his, saying “That Gary, I know he was a cantankerous old dog, but in my memory he always had a heart of gold.” The quote was near the end of the obit and neatly summed up what had already been shown throughout the obit, hitting everything home with the clank and levity of “cantankerous old dog.”
Some of the best obituaries offer a bit of reflection about life or death or the human condition. This is tough to get at if the deceased died unexpectedly and didn’t have the chance to reflect on his or her own life. Cory Taylor’s memoir Dying: A Memoir is a study in reflection. Written over a period of weeks while she was dying of melanoma, it’s a smart and powerful read—one that made it to the list of Barack Obama’s best books of 2017.
Taylor’s obit, in The Sydney Morning Herald, is similarly smart and compelling. Benjamin Law, a friend of Taylor’s, writes: “In writing and in life, Taylor’s pet peeves were taboos and cliche. Death, she found, was weirdly a funnel where both bloomed. That she was able to train her unsentimental, curious and unblinking eye on that most difficult subject is an enormous act of generosity and grace. In her book, she notes: ‘It takes courage to contemplate one’s own death. To find companions who share your desire to know more, to take the initiative, and to laugh in the face of our shared mortality, is a gift.’ By her own standards then, Taylor is one of our bravest writers. And we’re lucky she’s been our companion, right to the end.”
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I write obituaries, living obituaries, eulogies & speeches