Clothilde Goujard
Aug 26, 2016 · 6 min read

Do you remember these movies that clearly finish with “The END” or the very famous “ That’s all Folks”? The written statement is shown to let you know that’s when the crafted story finishes.

What about when our own stories end? By our “own stories” I mean, the stories of our lives. Who tells our stories and warn people that it’s finished?

Most often, obituary writers and editors are the ones in charge of informing our societies and communities of the “end of the story” of someone. Even though most people think obituaries are about death, the essays more often focus on the subject’s life. Death is simply the reason to go over their completed lives, says Noreen Shanahan, obituary writer for The Globe and Mail, a Canadian national newspaper.

Quirky obituaries of the past:

Looking at past obituaries gives us an idea of what was deemed a good life at different historical periods. For example, Janice Hume analyzed what traits were most important for people in the 19th century based on obituaries written at that time. Basically, men needed to be courageous, honest, and gallant and women needed to be pious (yes, that’s all). In the 20th century however, it was not so much about individual character anymore but about work ethics and glory from being a hard working man involved in business, social institutions or associations.

At that time, obituaries were only for the noble and great political figures (so mostly men as you can imagine!). Now they also include criminals sometimes.

If you opened The Gentleman’s Magazine, an English magazine, in 1780, you could have read one of the first obituary columns and found like quirky texts such as these:

John Broughton congratulated for his boxing skills

Isaac Tarrat remembered for impersonating a doctor and telling fortunes in a ‘fur cap, a large white beard, and a worsted damask night gown’

Trashy obituaries:

“Never speak ill of the dead” is not something that applies to obituary writers, writes Sandra Martin, the Globe and Mail’s chief obituary writer, in her book “Great Canadian Lives: A Cultural History of Modern Canada Through the Art of the Obit”. Their jobs is about dissecting and giving an account of someone’s lives as a journalist. “Nothing is omitted, but unflattering traits aren’t shouted out in neon headlines either, ” she explains.

In 1969 however, Hugh Massingberd, a British obituary editor, was known for turning obituaries into entertainment. He used to tell his writers to write about “subject’s less salubrious traits and escapes in a thinly veiled code that discerning readers could decipher to their private delectation”. For example, he often used the word “vivacious” for someone who had been known to be a drunk.

The abridged Massingberd-English dictionnary according to the New York Times

The editor also didn’t believe his writers should sign. This editorial policy created tensions between different British newspapers that believed writers should sign for professional, accountability and ethical reasons.

Although Massingberd passed away in 2007, his style continues to inspire many editors who like to speculate on people’s deaths and lives from trashy websites and tabloids to more credible media (think about Prince, Robin Williams or recent Pakistani star Quandeel Balosh).

Massinberg chilling at work

The challenges of writing an obituary:

Writing an obituary is not only about using the right words to faithfully represent someone’s life. One of the challenges is the word length. Writers only have so many words to tell a person’s life. Noreen Shanahan sometimes feels conflicted about the details she has to leave out. “Omissions — several million, in fact, if one were truly to count them–are necessary. Still, I always dread this moment before the curtain falls; before the article appears and the disappointment develops,” she writes on her blog.

She has to choose the details, the gestures, and habits that say the most about a person. As an outsider, she is able to reflect on a person without being too emotionally involved. Sometimes, “they [people] need a little bit of a fresh eye”.

In that sense, an obituary writer’s work is important because Shanahan believes people embellish. She tries to restore the balance. Sometimes, people also don’t give themselves enough credit so she asks them to think about their lives and examine them from a different perspective.

The morgue: writing about people’s death BEFORE they die

Another struggle on the job is the time constraint especially nowadays with the 24/7 news cycle. “The immediacy and finality of writing obituaries make my job terrifying,” writes Sandra Martin. She recalls times when famous people died in the afternoon and she only had a few hours to file (in the times of printed newspapers at least.)

Obituary writers are clever though. Over time, they’ve developed what they call morgue or advanced queue, “a more delicate term,” according to Martin. It is where pre written obituaries are kept. Some obituaries are thus prepared a long time in advance just in case. But Sandra Martin jokes that:

“in [her] own experience, having a prewritten obituary on file is the best guarantee of immortality, because nobody in the morgue ever seems to die.”

Queen Elizabeth II has probably been in the morgue of many newspapers for a while. #immortal

Alden Whitman was a legendary obituary writer and editor for the New York Times. He would cross people off his list once he had finished an advanced obituary. “Because they were deceased on paper, they were dead in reality, at least as far as he was concerned,” writes Sandra Martin.

Pre-interviews with people you expect to die sometime soon:

Keeping the “morgue” updated means doing pre-interviews with people who are important enough that they will have an obituary once they die. Sandra Martin recalls the first time she did a pre-interview. She mumbled when the person asked her when the piece would appear.

She assures that people are not necessarily scared about dying. She shares a funny anecdote after pre-interviewing a politician. She was reassuring her interviewee she would come back in five years to update the file: “When I made that pretty speech several years ago to politician Flora MacDonald, who was then in her late seventies she retorted: ‘You’ll have to do that, because my mother lived well past a hundred’.” (MacDonald died at age 89.)

The concept of pre-interview is a complicated one for ethical reasons. The writer assures she won’t tell anyone the content before the death of the interviewee. However, Sandra Martin wonders about the “moral and legal dilemma of it if the person reveals a state secret or criminal activity”.

People are getting older and that means more obituaries!

The obituary industry is evolving with the Internet and social media. People sometimes prepare videos to watch after they die to create a “post mortem digital legacy.”

A lot of newspapers also outsource their death notice business to companies. When will these companies provide editorial content and write themselves their obituaries?

Sandra Martin is optimistic about the state of the business. People are getting older and they want to read obituaries, according to a readership survey.

The Curious Storyteller

Exploring our ways of telling stories across media, and all the “behind-the-scenes” involved in telling a story.

Clothilde Goujard

Written by

Freelance journalist. International politics/ women’s issues/ digital news and storytelling. Avid reader and fan of VR.

The Curious Storyteller

Exploring our ways of telling stories across media, and all the “behind-the-scenes” involved in telling a story.

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