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.
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.
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.
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.