13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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iStock

When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

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11 Secrets of Astronauts

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In the 60 or so years that the job has existed, astronauts have captured the public's imagination. And while many people might think they have some idea of what being an astronaut is like, thanks to the glut of portrayals in movies, real astronauts will tell you that working for NASA is much different from what you see on the screen. In between exciting tasks like spacewalks, they have to worry about less glamorous aspects of the job—like finding lost items that floated away and using the toilet in microgravity.

Mental Floss spoke with two former NASA astronauts about the realities of preparing for and experiencing life in space. Read on to learn about the most annoying parts of the job, the ways they have fun, and their honest opinions about astronaut food.

1. Astronauts come from a range of different fields.

There’s no one direct path to becoming an astronaut. If someone knows they want to be an astronaut from a young age, they need to build credentials in a specific field before they can get the attention of NASA. "They're looking for people who are qualified, meaning that they're high-achieving military people or people from civilian life, generally with an advanced degree," Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, tells Mental Floss.

To be considered for NASA’s astronaut program, candidates must have U.S. citizenship, hold a master's degree in a STEM field, and have at least two years of related post-grad professional experience or at least 1000 hours of pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft. Two years toward a doctoral program in STEM, a completed doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, or completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program are also accepted in place of a master's degree. Because space flight crews require diverse skill sets, the criteria doesn’t get more specific than that.

"I was a Ph.D. research engineer professor when I was picked," Massimino says. "I've flown in space with engineers, with test pilots, helicopter pilots for the military. I've also flown in space with a geologist, I've flown in space with an oceanographer, and I've flown in space with a veterinarian. So it's really varied. There's not just one route."

2. Astronaut training involves everything from class work to military survival exercises.

NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman on a spacewalk in May 2010.NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Candidates accepted into the astronaut program must complete years of training before they're ready for spaceflight. A lot of that training takes place in the classroom and involves learning about different space vehicles and systems. Astronauts also undergo physical training in the real world. According to Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut and the director of space operations at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, one of the most intense courses has nothing to do with preparing for life in space.

"We do the same SERE [survive, evade, resist, escape] training that military aviators go through," he tells Mental Floss. "The idea is that if you fell out of an aircraft over enemy terrain, you got to know how to survive without help. You have to learn to live off the land, what plants you can eat, how to make a shelter and all those things."

The T-38 jets astronauts fly as part of their training have ejectable seats, so landing somewhere unfamiliar is a possibility. But astronauts only fly over the continental U.S., so they likely won't ever need to use the full extent of their SERE training. "What are the odds that you parachute down and there’s not a Starbucks right there?" Reisman jokes. "All you need to do is give me a Starbucks gift card and I’ll be fine."

3. Exercise is a vital part of the job.

Exercising is more than a way to pass time in space: It’s essential to an astronaut’s health. The human body isn’t used to moving around without the force of gravity, and for this reason, all astronauts must make resistance exercises part of their daily routine.

"You do have to spend two hours every day exercising," Reisman says. "If you're up there for a long period of time, you can lose a lot of your bone and your muscle mass if you do nothing, so the way we get around that is by doing intense resistance exercise."

Astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their muscle mass on an 11-day space flight due to the lack of gravity [PDF]. But zero gravity also makes free weights useless, so instead, astronauts maintain their strength by using a device outfitted with two small canisters that create a vacuum they can pull against with a long bar. A bike and treadmill (with a harness) are also available on the International Space Station. Strength is required to perform certain emergency procedures when the ship re-enters Earth's gravitational field, so staying fit in space is vital.

4. Astronauts do most of their work on Earth.

Astronaut Mike Massimino practices repairing a portion of the Hubble Space Telescope while training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In order to become one of the few people to travel to space, astronauts must be willing to do a lot of work at home. "A NASA astronaut’s job is mainly spending your time on Earth," Massimino says. "You're going to spend the vast majority of your time on the ground, either training or working on technical issues or helping other people fly." Throughout his nearly two decades with NASA, Massimino spent less than a month total in space. Reisman was with NASA for 12 years and spent a cumulative 107 days of his career in space.

5. Astronauts don't make as much money as you think.

One of the biggest misconceptions astronauts hear about their work relates to their salary. While they are paid decently, astronauts don’t collect the massive paychecks some people might assume comes with such a high-profile job. "We don't make a heck of a lot of money," Massimino says. "We make a standard government salary."

Astronauts are paid according to the federal government's General Schedule pay scale. Most federal jobs are assigned a General Schedule (GS) grade that determines their starting salary, and the pay increases as they gain experience. Astronauts either qualify for grades GS 13 or 14 (the highest grade is GS 15) and make between $104,898 and $161,141 per year. For comparison, Fish and Wildlife administrators are paid similarly at the right experience level.

6. Astronauts lose things (but not for long).

Even in a place as tight as a space station, astronauts still manage to misplace their belongings. Thanks to the lack of gravity, anything they let go of immediately drifts away, which can cause problems when they’re not paying attention. Massimino recalls one incident that happened to his crewmate Mike Good: "He had his grandfather’s watch with him, and he comes up to me and goes, 'Mass, I can’t find the watch.' We’re looking all over the place and I stop after a minute and go, 'Mike, it’s inside here somewhere.'"

They eventually found it trapped inside the airlock. The air filter is another common place where lost items end up: Without gravity interfering, the air flow will carry any floating objects there. "One thing we would say is, 'If you can’t find something, just wait,'" Massimino says. "You'd wake up in the morning and look at the filter and see like aspirin and a piece of Velcro or something, because everything eventually would get there."

7. Astronaut opinions on the food in space are mixed.

Despite its reputation, space food has some fans in the astronaut community. "Astronaut food is great," Massimino says. "We had ravioli, lasagna, shrimp cocktail, fajitas. It was fantastic."

Reisman holds a much different opinion of the meals he ate in space. "It’s terrible. You don’t go to the space station for the food," he says. While he didn’t love the American and Russian provisions that made up most of his diet in space, he did have nice things to say about food from other agencies. "The Japanese and the Europeans, when their astronauts would fly, they had special food that was provided by their space agencies. The Japanese sent up yakitori and miso soup and that was delicious. And the Europeans had pâté. That was much better."

8. Astronauts find time to have fun.

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino smiles during some extravehicular activity (EVA).NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Between work, meals, and exercise, astronauts don’t have a ton of free time in space. Duties like maintenance, installing equipment, and conducting experiments take up the majority of their day. Sneaking in recreation usually means staying up past their scheduled bedtime, which Reisman confirms most astronauts do. One of his favorite activities to do aboard the International Space Station was taking pictures of Earth. "You could take photographs of places on Earth that are special to you. I got a picture of my hometown, which is pretty cool. As far as I know, no human ever photographed that particular town from space before."

9. Astronauts think movies set unrealistic standards.

The science isn’t the only thing that’s unrealistic about Hollywood’s portrayal of space travel. "I think the biggest misconception is that we're all tall and good-looking," Reisman says. When working as a technical advisor for 2019's Ad Astra, he jokingly brought up this gripe with the movie’s star Brad Pitt. "I said, 'I’m kind of pissed off at you. Think about who they cast to be astronauts in all these movies and TV shows. Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, George Clooney, Brad Pitt. People meet me and they’re disappointed.'"

Reisman doesn't hold this against the actors, however. Pitt reminded him that the stars portraying astronauts on screen have plenty to be envious of themselves. "Brad said: 'Well, Garrett, I can't actually fly a spaceship. The only talent I have is being able to stand in a certain spot and read something that someone else wrote. I got nothing else.'"

10. Going to the bathroom in space is an ordeal.

If you’ve ever wondered how astronauts poop in space, the answer is: with great difficulty. "Taking a dump was not easy," Reisman confirms. Without the help of gravity, using a toilet in space becomes a complicated operation. Astronauts must strap their feet down to keep from floating away and create a perfect seal between the toilet seat and their butt cheeks. The toilet itself uses a vacuum hose to suction up the waste. The process is so complex that using a space toilet is part of an astronaut’s training. It's not unusual for a bathroom break that normally takes a few minutes on Earth to last half an hour in space.

11. In such a competitive field, astronauts need to be persistent.

NASA's astronaut training program is extremely competitive. The agency selected just 12 people out of a pool of 18,353 candidates in 2017, which comes out to an acceptance rate of 0.065 percent. Massimino had to apply four times before he made it into the program.

"I was rejected outright twice while I was in grad school. The third time I got an interview and failed the eye exam, so was medically disqualified." NASA considers candidates with less than 20/20 vision today as long as it's correctable, but that wasn't the case when Massimino was applying. "I went through some vision training with an optometrist, and I was able to teach my eyes to see a little better. I was able to apply a fourth time, and I was picked on my fourth try."

According to Massimino, that level of commitment to his goal ended up being relevant to the job itself. "The job is a lot of late-night simulations, you have to pass exams, you have to work with your teammates. And unless you have a real interest in it, it's going to be tough."