I used to write obituaries. Here's what I learned.

Contrary to what you might believe, the obits page is full of life

Rows of gravestones.
(Image credit: iStock)

"It's counterintuitive, perhaps, but obituaries have next to nothing do with death and absolutely everything to do with life."

So says The New York Times' prolific obituary writer, Margalit Fox, in the recently released documentary Obit about the famous Times obituary desk. For those who just briefly scan the obituary section of the newspaper or avoid it all together, this statement might seem a little off; after all, the whole reason for an obituary in the first place is because someone has died.

But at my hometown newspaper, I penned well over 100 obits over the course of two years, and I can tell you none of them contained more than a sentence or two about the person's death. Instead, paragraph after paragraph detailed the deceased's love of family, career achievements, philanthropic endeavors, and lifelong hobbies. Obituaries are about life, and I loved writing them.

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I enjoyed reading obituaries long before I started writing them. That might sound a bit morbid, but as a little kid reading the Los Angeles Times, I always lingered over the death notices. L.A. was full of fascinating people — B-list Hollywood stars from the '50s, Holocaust survivors, record breakers, movers and shakers — and their life stories spilled onto the obits page. I was nosy, and I loved learning about the lives of these colorful strangers.

Two days after my college graduation, I started my very first job as an editorial assistant at my local paper; this meant I did whatever mundane tasks the editors needed done. While I had to do a lot of one-off errands (One time I was sent to the home of an elderly woman who wanted her poem about Ronald Reagan, who had died two years earlier, printed in the paper. When I arrived her dog promptly bit me.), obituaries were one of my more regular responsibilities.

At first, I was nervous about this task. I wasn't sure how to deal with people talking about the fresh death of a loved one; I was 21 and a budding journalist, not a grief counselor. I feared there would be unstoppable tears, maybe a little wailing, and definitely some stonewalling. But to my surprise, people were very open. They liked talking about their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. It was cathartic for them to remember milestones, like a 50th anniversary, or the time their uncle received an award from the Rotary Club. It felt good to recall these happier moments, before illness or old age crept in.

About five years ago, my grandmother's neighbor Jean asked if I would work with her husband Orv on writing his obituary. He was very ill, but still with it enough for us to chat. We went over his early life, his time in the military, his teaching and counseling careers, and his children and grandchildren. A very civic-minded man, he served as the president of many different organizations in the area, and we discussed projects he spearheaded and awards he received. I think Jean even learned some new things about the husband she had long adored. Orv died just a few weeks later, and by having his obituary all ready to go, it saved Jean and her family from having to do one more thing while they were busy making funeral arrangements.

It's not fun to think about your own demise, but it actually is a good idea to have an obituary written, or at least sketched out. Most people don't write memoirs or have biographers. The things you find so important about yourself might be forgotten by your loved ones after you pass, and by jotting down your own obit, it saves them time and energy.

If I have any tips for writing the "perfect" obituary, it's to just be true to the person you're writing about. If a person was a jokester while they were alive, their sense of humor should shine through. Talk with their relatives and friends to get a complete picture. You might have always chatted with your grandmother about gardening, but maybe your cousin bonded with her over politics. There's also a tendency to lionize people the instant they're no longer with us, immediately forgetting their flaws. Don't bare it all — obituaries aren't the place to, say, complain about your cousin dying before he ever paid you back that $20 he borrowed in 1997 (save that for the eulogy) — but also don't embellish or go over the top with easily searchable claims (we know your dad didn't invent Post-its). There's really no need to elaborate anyway; when done right, obits have a way of making even the most ordinary person seem interesting.

There's a great responsibility that comes with writing an obituary; when the person is already deceased, they can't tap you on the shoulder and remind you that in 1967 they moved across the country to San Diego and in 1985 they finally hit their first hole-in-one. It's entirely up to you to decide what is worth mentioning and what people should remember about their life. So, if you do get the chance to write an obit, seize the opportunity: While death may take our loved ones away, the obituary is a way to bring them back.

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