Friday, January 04, 2008

The Art of Obituaries

On January 4, 2008, National Public Radio broadcast a segment entitled "Obit Writer Gets to Heart of Things", consisting of an interview with Ann Wroe, the obituary editor for The Economist, "who aims to capture the essence of a person" upon death.

Wikipedia defines an "obituary":

An obituary attempts to sometimes give an account of the texture and significance of the life of someone who has recently died. It is to be distinguished from a death notice (also known as a funeral notice), which is a paid advertisement written by family members and placed in the newspaper either by the family or the funeral home. * * *

Obituaries are a notable feature of
The Economist, which publishes precisely one full-page obituary per week, reflecting on the subject's life and influence on world history. * * *
Accounts that appear in most newspapers follow a standard, crisp format. eHow reduced the writing of an obituary & funeral announcement into eight steps, as described in its online article "How to Write an Obituary":
An obituary is usually written in paragraph form and charts the life of the deceased in chronological order. It should focus on accomplishments of the deceased person and the impact that person had on his or her family, friends and community.
  • Step One -- Check with the newspaper to see if there are any restrictions on length before you write the obituary.
  • Step Two -- Give the deceased's full name and date and place of death.
  • Step Three -- Recount the main events in the person's life, beginning with his or her birth and birthplace.
  • Step Four -- Include a list of schools attended, degrees received, vocation and hobbies.
  • Step Five -- Acknowledge any survivors, including parents, spouse and children.
  • Step Six -- Announce when and where the funeral, burial, wake and/or memorial service will take place.
  • Step Seven -- Conclude with a statement regarding where memorial contributions can be sent, if applicable.
  • Step Eight -- Time the publication of the obituary so that it runs a few days before the memorial service. * * *
Those instructions also included some "Tips & Warnings". One of the comments offered to that article cautioned about accuracy:
Verify everything - I'm a professional obituary writer for one of the largest newspapers in Connecticut. I can share with everyone some very important clues: Always verify everything. Every fact, every spelling, every date.

Once the obituary is printed, it's done. You are paying for this notice to be printed, and you want it to be right the first time. * * *
Most death notices originate from funeral homes. One funeral home, Lippert-Olson Funeral Home, in Sheboygan, WI, explained that process and provided a sample in an "Obituary Writing Guide". See also: "Writing an Obituary", posted by the Funeral Directory.

The best of obituaries can be considered as academic or professional writing, and can approach an artform known as an elegy (to be differentiated from the spoken eulogy).

Most of the better obituaries are written by newspaper reporters, published in the form of articles. Well-written obituaries have been recognized in the past by awards issued by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, as evidenced in 2005 (although not since).

It is this level of obituaries that the January 4th NPR segment highlighted -- those written by Ann Wroe as published in The Economist.
Wroe's job is all about death. She edits and writes obituaries for The Economist magazine.

"It seems to me like an opportunity to get into dozens of very interesting lives and I find it endlessly fascinating, not in the least morbid," she tells Steve Inskeep.

"In fact, we have a tradition in England of rather irreverent and interesting obituaries ...." * * *

Wroe says she likes to "get to the point" right away, and "the point may not be the one we first think of." * * *

"I find a mere chronology of a life really doesn't sum up that life for me," she says. "I want to get the texture and the sound and even the smell of someone ... get right inside the essence of that person." * * *

The NPR article reproduces some memorable obituaries written by Wroe in 2007, including:
At the end of the interview, Wroe was asked about her own obituary. You can hear her reply by listening online, through the "Listen Now" link provided here.

Image credit: Vincent van Gogh's Sower with Setting Sun (After Millet).
November 1888. Burlap on canvas.
Foundation E.G. B├╝hrle collection, Zurich, Switzerland.

Update: 01/04/08 @ 1:00 pm:

I just noticed some cross-referenced articles on the NPR website that relate to the writing of obituaries. See: