Per the CDC, more than 2.5 million people die in America annually. By contrast, a mere one thousand will have the privilege of getting an obituary about them published in the New York Times in any given year (note: that's not the same as a paid death notice ).
One of the people who's had the opportunity to write more than 1,200 obituaries in her 20-year career is Margalit Fox, senior writer for the New York Times. She got her start in 1995, writing obituaries as a freelancer before joining the staff full-time in 2004. She is currently on leave to write her third book but was kind enough to spend some time with me on Skype to talk about her experiences in the profession.
VICE: What would you say is the biggest misconception about obituaries?
Margalit Fox: Most people have some awareness that many newspaper obituaries are written in advance. But a common and very understandable fallacy is that they are all written in advance. Would that it were so, but if you think about it in pure numbers, the number of people who will one day die is literally in the billions. Even if you consider only those that would be newsworthy for our pages, it's still in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions.
We have only four or five writers on our staff, so therefore 90 percent of my job, and that of my colleagues, is handling the breaking news daily obits that are reported and written on deadline just as articles elsewhere in the paper are. When we have some downtime if there's nothing breaking, or when our editor wants to give us a little reprieve, then we turn our attention to working on advances, where by newspaper standards we have the luxury of incredible amounts of time, meaning maybe two days instead of one, or for really complex people maybe a week. But that's the exception to the rule.
How about things people say about obituary writers themselves?
It's that we are these dour, morbid, depressed, death-haunted people. I think that people who think that clearly haven't read our pages. Because if they read our pages, it's pure narrative. And the stories, of course, are not about the death—they are about the life. In an obit of 1,000 words, the death is just the "news peg," as we call it. It might be one or two sentences. So it really is about the life.
Some might argue cause of death is unnecessary info to include. How would you respond?
Historically, either the cause of death was never reported, in deference to the family's sensibilities, or it was couched in these thinly veiled euphemisms that, weirdly, everyone a little bit older than I was born hard-wired knowing how to read. So if an obit said someone died of a "long illness" you knew that meant cancer. "Short illness" meant heart attack.
Interestingly, a colleague of mine who was raised in the South said, in Southern papers, if it said someone "died at home," everyone knew that meant [he or she] committed suicide. But because we are reporting the news, we have to have complete fealty to the truth. Believe me, we're human. We're all good people. We're not in the business of wanting to add to the pain of of newly bereaved families, trust me. But, the whole newspaper answers the question "What happened?" and obituary articles are no different. Happily, these days people are much more relaxed in talking about cancer; talking about it isn't the great taboo it was even 40 years ago. Even AIDS, people will tell us, and sometimes suicide as well.
What are the most enjoyable types of obituaries to write?
The ones that all of us love best are what I call "history's unsung backstage players." One that comes to mind is a woman named Ruth Siems. She was a largely anonymous home economist who worked for General Foods at their plant in Indiana—not somebody we would normally have covered, except for one thing. One of the things she did in the course of her job for this company years before was to figure out that you could take a bunch of bread, cut it into cubes, dehydrate it, add some spices, put it in a box, and have people just add water and egg and voilà—Stove Top Stuffing.
And God bless her, she did us a solid—this was a few years ago—by dying right before Thanksgiving. We were able to run the obit on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving week in that year, and of course we did our due diligence in terms of reporting. I called the company, and, during Thanksgiving season alone, they sell something like 60 million boxes of the stuff. So there's this unsung woman who changed the culture. And I've had the great pleasure of writing about many such people. I've done the inventor of Twister, the inventor of Etch A Sketch, the inventor of the Frisbee, the inventor of the crash-test dummy, all sorts of people. How cool is that?
What are the criteria that you employ when prospecting for people to write advances on? I would imagine it's not just a factor of importance, but of likelihood to die, no?
We sort of have our eye on famous people, important people who are getting up in years or if we hear that someone has been in the hospital, has had an accident, has been ill. These are people whose body of work is so long, so rich, and so complex that we don't want to get have to get caught short writing it on deadline. It's a like a batter getting caught looking the other way when a fastball whizzes by his head. Of course, it inevitably happens because you can't account for all of the pre-dead. And there's always going to be the rock star who dies young from an overdose. But we have more than 1,700 advance obits on file, and they range from several hundred words to 10,000. And trust me, no journalist wants to get caught writing 10,000 words or even 3,000 on deadline. Although 3,000 we've all done. I've certainly done it.
What makes for a good obituary?
Obits are the most purely narrative form in any daily paper. I think more than the sports game story, which is also chronological. So with obits you have this nice narrative structure giving you the arc from cradle to grave. But on the other hand you don't want to be too much at its mercy either. And so sometimes you want to—for structural reasons, for thematic reasons—withhold information to surprise the reader at the very end. You want to reorder things. So that's really kind of a pleasure in this day and age. With the modern, more feature-like obit, it's a pleasure to make those kinds of craft decisions. Tough to make them on deadline sometimes, but it's what we're trained to do. So ideally, it has to have lively writing, and above all it had damn well better be accurate.
One of the great things about writing obits in the 20th century is we're allowed to be lively writers, even humorous writers where it's appropriate to the subject. And we are so happy to say that at the New York Times, obits is one of the most writerly sections of the paper.
Do you have any pet peeves when reading obituaries written by others?
Well, there is one. In a small town paper—by no means all, but in some regional papers—you will still see run as a news article what is clearly just a re-printed press release from the family home. And the way you can tell is they are all full of these Victorian clichés that are always the same: "He died doing what he loved." "He touched the lives of everyone he ever knew." "He died surrounded by his loved ones."
And we occasionally get families of some of these unsung heroes who are not conversant in dealing with the press who will say very earnestly, "Please put in 'He died surrounded by everyone he loved,'" and you just kind of say "uh-huh" politely and of course you know that's going to go right on the cutting-room floor. We are not in the business of producing eulogies. We are obliged, even with obituaries as they now stand, as good as they are to read, to produce balanced news stories that show warts and all. So if I do have a pet peeve, it's something one still sees in regional papers where it seems as though everyone who died in whatever town was some kind of a saint. Statistically, how likely is that?
*There was recently an article in the Guardian* *where Idi Amin's son wrote in to request corrections to his father's obituary from 2003. Do you have any similar stories?*
We do still have to educate the public and families to the fact that we are obliged to present people as they really were, no matter how many things the family would like us to suppress, and how many things they would be able to get suppressed in their local paper by comparison. So we do sometimes have irate families calling us. I've certainly been called a bitch, a bad journalist, every name in the book. For the last ten years, whenever I have a story in the paper, whenever I come in and I see the red message light, my stomach goes tight. And often it's one of these ranting, abusive, invective-laden messages from families.
Is there a way to prepare families or at least set expectations?
The absolute best example of this I ever heard was from my new retired colleague Dennis Hevesi. Dennis is the sweetest man who ever walked the earth, but he was also a good, solid newsman of 40-year standing. I forget what he was working on, but it was clearly some sort of disgraced politician who had died, and he was on the phone with the guy's family. I heard him say very gently, but also very firmly, "You know, I will have to have a paragraph in there about the four months your dad spent in jail."
God bless him—he did his due diligence. I'm sure the family didn't like it, but what I say is, we're not in the veneration business. And the world has not necessarily caught up with that because even in the 21st century, in all but the biggest papers, you can still see these kind of misty-eyed, Victorian obits.
Have you had situations where you interviewed people for their own obituary?
I have had the strange pleasure of doing it on the phone, and as I say elsewhere, there is nothing in Emily Post for this. It's the most bizarre social situation you can imagine; where you're calling up someone and saying, in effect, "Hello, you don't know me, but we think you're going to die someday, and we'd like you to talk to us so that when you do die, we can put what you say where a million people can see it."
So one has to be very delicate, and I do, in fact, borrow these wonderful euphemisms that Alden Whitman used like, "We're updating your biographical file," and then people can take in as much of that as they can handle. So I think some of them know what we're up to and some of them don't, and that's fine.
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