The art of an obit

Posted August 23, 2013 at 11:09 am

BABBLING BROOKS column–Express Editor Kim Brooks

How often do you read the obituaries (obits) in your daily or weekly newspaper? Is this one of the first pages you turn to every morning or every Wednesday when you new Monticello Express arrives?

While different newspapers across the country handle obits differently, for some writers, it’s a craft.

Many times when the Express receives an obit, it’s either been sent from the funeral home or the family of the deceased. With information provided by and compiled by the family, the funeral home can piece together (what I would call) a normal obituary.

It includes the basic information: birth date, death date, when and where the funeral and visitation service will be/were held, where the person was born, his/her education and professional life, military background, spouse, children, grandchildren, his/her hobbies and pastimes, service organizations the deceased was a part of, a list of survivors and those who preceded the person in death. Sometimes, you’ll also see information on where to send memorial gifts and thank-you notes for hospice services and hospitals that aided in the end of the person’s life.

Some obits are longer than others; it all depends on how much information you want to include and how descriptive you wish to be about the life of your loved one.

Around here, for your smaller newspapers anyway, the profession of writing obits is a little unheard of. But for your larger newspaper companies like The New York Times, The Huffington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Philadelphia Daily News and more, writing someone’s obituary is a fine-tuned craft. Some of these writers who specialize in obit writing may not even work for newspapers, but offer the service as a business.

I came across an interesting article about the time, work and effort some journalists put into writing obits. It’s not just for famous people and celebrities either, they research many people’s lives to put together a masterpiece obit!

The Internet is full of websites where you can fill-in-the-blank and put together an obit yourself. Kind of a do-it-yourself service. This article from CNN also mentions the concept of putting a bar code (QR code) on grave stones that can be scanned by smart phones and instantly take people to the online obit. Seems a little odd to me…

For some newspapers, the obit page isn’t the must-read page in their paper. Years and years ago, the literary obits (the fancy-schmancy obits) didn’t even appear on the regular obit page at all, but were published as must-read articles.

Shortly after I started working here, long-time business owner and Monticello resident Albert McNeill passed away. While we could have run his obit, which we did, his story was worth telling in great length. I sat down with his son, grandson and family friend to get the inside scoop on Albert. How did he grow up? How did one of Monticello’s oldest family-operated businesses (McNeill Hardware) get started? How did the business changed over the years? Questions like these helped me get to know Albert, a man I had never met, and I was able to put together a tribute piece on who this man really was, as told from those closest to him.

Writing obits similar to my article on Albert takes time, research. It’s a way to portray someone’s father, grandfather, loved one, as they truly were.

I found it interesting, a bit humorous, that the article I read mentioned how many opportunities the run-of-the-mill Average Joe gets to make the local news: three. When you’re born, you make the news. When you get married, you make the news. And when you pass away, you still make the news. So it seems only fitting that the obit stand out, as this is your last chance to make an impact.

Here is a fake obit that’s a great example of how fancy you can get: “Pluto the Planet, 76, died Thursday in Prague, Czech Republic, when it was killed by the International Astronomical Union – downgraded to a lowly ‘dwarf planet.’ No memorial service is planned, because it’s been several years since astronomers considered Pluto a real planet.”