Lessons from an obituary writer

“What have you got for me today?”

The woman on the telephone had a voice that was soft. Her tiny, floral print, navy blue dress seemed to swallow her petite frame. Bony fingers with short, unpolished nails held a No. 2 pencil, which hovered over a yellow legal pad. She held the phone in the crook of her neck. “Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Okay, then, what else? “Ok, thanks, Hal.” Then she put the receiver down and dialed the next number.

I was shadowing this woman in my first real writing job, working for a city newspaper. She was on the telephone with funeral directors. Her job was to train me in writing obituaries.

I was uncomfortable.

My father had drilled into all of his children the importance of being grateful for work, the dignity of work itself, and the necessity of not being too big for our britches to prevent us from thinking we were so important we were above menial work. So I expected really, to be writing obituaries as my first assignment at this job at the city newspaper. That didn’t bother me.

What did bother me, however, was that the process of writing obituaries seemed so cold and impersonal for something so significant. It seemed harsh to ask bluntly, “What have you got for me today?” in regards to a death. It amazed me that this woman came in each morning and simply dialed up the undertaker to find personal details of the life of someone who was no more, asking, “What have you got for me today?”

With each call reality hit me: some family was grieving deeply. Some husband had lost a wife, or a family a father, or saddest of all, parents a child. It didn’t faze the newspaper obituary writer, and I think that’s what astonished me. She performed her task in a perfunctory manner, neither relishing the process nor despising it. It was simply something she had to do. “What have you got for me today?” was her saying, “Please give me the information I need to complete my task.” Then she carried on to do her job as best she could.

Matter-of-factly, this woman wrote down the necessary information on the legal pad, took it to an electric typewriter — and showed me the format she wanted me to use.

“We vary the wording somewhat,” she explained to me the very first time, “Sometimes this way. …” And she showed me wording with the deceased’s name up front. “And sometimes this way.” Then she showed me a slightly different version. Several others followed.

“Okay,” I replied.

“We really try to make sure there are no spelling errors,” she continued. “You have to check everything. If there is information missing, you need to call back to get it. Make sure you include this, and this and this.” And she filled in the precise details.

So I learned to follow her directions, calling the funeral homes each morning, one by one, to glean information. And I wrote up the obituaries, carefully, precisely, painstakingly sometimes, making sure the form was just right, that this Cecelia had an “e” not an “i” in her name, and that that Mr. Tom Jenkins wanted his father’s initials not full names used, and that in another case, although it was usually not done, the deceased woman’s cat had to be mentioned in the write-up or the family would be very upset.

Over time I came to realize what a kindness, even an act of mercy, writing obituaries is. An obituary is usually the last public write-up that a person will ever have. A small mistake can cause suffering to the family. Mistakes can be painful to survivors. No son or daughter of the deceased wants to wake up three days before the funeral of their beloved parent and see that his or her name has been left out or misspelled in the obituary. Emotions run high when people die and a nicely written obituary is reassurance that this life mattered. I came to realize the importance of doing this small thing with precision — or as Mother Teresa would say, with great love.

Lastly, I learned something else from this experience: that it’s good to ask God the question that the newspaper obituary writer asked every day of the funeral directors:

What do you have for me today?”

Once I know that, I can act purposefully, with precision and meaning and care, show kindness and make a difference.

Posted on August 5, 2014, to: