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.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
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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.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
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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.

A highlighter is run over the word '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.

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

10 Secrets of Ice Cream Truck Drivers

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asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Ever since Good Humor founder Harry Burt dispatched the first jingling ice cream trucks in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920, kids and adults alike have had a primal reaction to the sight of a vehicle equipped with a cold, sugary payload. Today, ice cream trucks spend May through October hoping to entice customers into making an impulse beat-the-heat purchase. To get a better idea of what goes into making ice cream a portable business, Mental Floss spoke with several proprietors for their take on everything from ideal weather conditions to police encounters. Here’s the inside scoop.

1. IT CAN GET TOO HOT FOR BUSINESS.

The most common misconception about the ice cream truck business? That soaring temperatures mean soaring profits. According to Jim Malin, owner of Jim’s Ice Cream Truck in Fairfield, Connecticut, record highs can mean decreased profits. “When it’s really hot, like 90 or 100 degrees out, sales go way down,” Malin says. “People aren’t outside. They’re indoors with air conditioning.” And like a lot of trucks, Malin’s isn’t equipped with air conditioning. “I’m suffering and sales are suffering." The ideal temperature? "A 75-degree day is perfect.”

2. THEY DON’T JUST WANDER NEIGHBORHOODS ANYMORE.

An ice cream truck sits parked in a public spot
Chunky Dunks

The days of driving a few miles an hour down a residential street hoping for a hungry clientele have fallen by the wayside. Many vendors, including Malin, make up half or more of their business by arranging for scheduled stops at events like weddings, employee picnics, or school functions. “We do birthday parties, church festivals, sometimes block parties,” he says. Customers can pay in advance, meaning that all guests have to do is order from the menu.

3. SOME OF THEM DRIVE A MINIBUS INSTEAD OF A TRUCK.

For sheer ice cream horsepower, nothing beats a minibus. Laci Byerly, owner of Doodlebop’s Ice Cream Emporium in Jacksonville, Florida, uses an airport-style shuttle for her inventory. “Instead of one or two freezers, we can fit three,” she says. More importantly, the extra space means she doesn’t have to spend the day hunched over. “We can stand straight up.”

4. THEY HAVE A SECRET STASH OF ICE CREAM TO GIVE AWAY TO SPECIAL CUSTOMERS.

A picture of an ice cream truck menu.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The goal of any truck is to sell enough ice cream to justify the time and expense of operation, so freebies don’t make much sense—unless the truck happens to have some damaged goods. Malin says that it’s common for some pre-packaged bars to be broken inside wrappers, rendering them unattractive for sale. He sets these bars aside for kids who know the score. “I put them in a little box for kids who come up and ask if I have damaged ice cream,” he says. “Certain kids know I have it, and I’m happy to give it to them.”

5. THEY’RE CREATING CUSTOM ICE CREAM MENUS.

An ice cream nacho platter is shown
Chunky Dunks

While pre-packaged Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches remain perennial sellers, a number of trucks are mixing up business by offering one-of-a-kind treats. At the Chunky Dunks truck in Madison, Mississippi, owner Will Lamkin serves up Ice Cream Nachos, a signature dish that outsells anything made by Nestle. “It’s cinnamon sugar chips with your choice of ice cream,” he says. “You get whipped cream, too. And for the ‘cheese,’ it’s a caramel-chocolate sauce.” The nachos work because they’re “streetable,” Lamkin’s label for something people can carry while walking. “The next seven or eight people in line see it, and then everyone’s ordering it.”

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PLAY THE ICONIC JINGLE.

Before most people see an ice cream truck, they hear that familiar tinny tune. While some operators still rely on it for its familiarity, Malin and others prefer more modern tracks. “Normally we play ‘80s rock,” he says. “Or whatever we feel like playing that day. We rock it out.”

7. POP CULTURE CHARACTERS ARE SOME OF THEIR BEST SELLERS.

A Captain America ice cream treat
Doodlebop's

While adult customers tend to favor ice cream treats they remember from their youth, kids who don’t really recognize nostalgia tend to like items emblazoned with the likenesses and trademarks of licensed characters currently occupying their TV screens and local theaters. “Characters are the most popular with kids,” Byerly says. “SpongeBob, Minions, and Captain America.”

8. THEY KEEP DOG FOOD HANDY.

At Doodlebop’s, Byerly has a strategy for luring customers with pets: She keeps dog treats on hand. “The dog will sometimes get to us before the owner does,” she says. “If the dog comes up to the truck, he’ll get a Milkbone.” That often leads to a human companion purchasing a treat for themselves.

9. SOMETIMES RIVALS WILL CALL THE COPS.

Though there have been stories of rogue ice cream vendors aggressively competing for neighborhood space over the years, Malin says that he’s never experienced any kind of out-and-out turf war. Ice cream truck drivers tend to be a little more passive-aggressive than that. “I have a business permit for Fairfield, so that’s typically where I’m driving,” he says. “But sometimes I might go out of town for an event. Once, a driver pulled up to me and asked if I had a permit. I said ‘No, I’m just here for an hour,’ and he said, ‘OK, I’m calling the cops.’ They try and get the police to get you out [of town].” Fortunately, police typically don’t write up drivers for the infraction.

10. SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS HAVE AN APP FOR HOME DELIVERY.

An ice cream truck driver.
George Rose/Getty Images

Technology has influenced everything, and ice cream trucks are no exception. Malin uses an app that allows customers to request that he make a special delivery. "People can request I pull up right outside their home," he says. If their parents are home, there’s one additional perk: "I accept credit cards."

This article originally ran in 2018.