I don’t love doing it, but I never want to let it go.
In her wonderful book, Working the Dead Beat, Globe and Mail columnist Sandra Martin called writing obituaries “the most interesting and often the most terrifying job in any newspaper.” Truer words have not been spoken on the art.
For years, it was seen as the worst job in the newspaper, the assignment given to rookies just in the door or time-passed veterans on their way out.
It was often a thankless task. On the obituary desk, you could never be totally correct, as someone always had an issue, be it the order of ex-spouses listed as survivors or the omission of pets from the same list. (I have had complaints on both.) You get into all sorts of family entanglements, rehashed old feelings and personal scores yet to be settled.
But you must forgive all that. You are dealing with families often in the early moments of their saddest points.
No wonder the job scares off so many.
When I was 19, I wanted to be Bob Woodward. But I started on the obituary desk at the Mattoon Journal-Gazette. Given this was my hometown newspaper, covering a community not much bigger than a packed Alumni Hall, I knew at least one name in every obituary I wrote.
It was an added level of pressure, but also an added level of connection as well. I enjoyed every minute of it because, as Martin so beautifully put it, “death is only the occasion for writing about a life.”
And what amazing lives I have been fortunate to write about in my career.
Journalists can get lost in writing for faceless masses, forgetting ‘readers’ are actual people. You get in the habit of speaking to a collective, not an individual. But you never lose that connection writing obituaries. You are constantly aware of the ‘realness’ behind the names you are putting to paper – double- and triple-checking each and every name, even calling the funeral home to make sure that aunt on the deceased’s mother side really spells her name that way, just in case.
Just as I believe we would have a kinder country if every citizen was required to spend one year working in retail or food service at some point, I know we would have better reporters if they were required to spend a year on the obituary desk.
However, like much in the industry, the craft of obituary writing has faded away. Newspapers started to see obituaries as profit centres, charging for something beyond the basic and turning over the authorship to funeral homes that rely more on templates than artistry. This is true for all but the largest newspapers who can afford to staff the position with a journalist instead of a typist.
At Western News, we are lucky members of the Western community will often step forward to pen a few words about their colleague and friend. Perhaps no words ring truer than ones by those who know us best.
More than three years ago, my friend and colleague, Gary Cleveland, a longtime production manager responsible for the Athens Banner-Herald hitting the streets each morning, died after a short battle with cancer. At the time, I called him a co-worker, mentor and friend. Those words are even truer today than when he died, as what he taught me continues to resonate.
Perhaps my favorite moment with Gary came in January 2010. After his father, Arnold Cleveland, passed away at 91, Gary asked me to help pen the obituary. I understood the reverence Gary held for his father. So I was honoured to be asked to help.
Over the course of a couple of visits to my office, and a handful of telephone calls back and forth as he traveled to be with his family, the ever-perfectionist Gary finally got the perfect wording detailing his father’s life well lived. Putting the finishing touches on it, Gary paused as I read it back to him over the phone. “Jason, enjoy every moment. You’ll never know when it’ll end.”
I think of that moment every time I write an obituary, and what even a few words mean to the survivors.
All this came to mind this week as I penned the obituaries of two students – Chinyere (Chi-Chi) Okonkwoh, a Faculty of Information and Media Studies student, who died March 10, and Noah Kishinevsky, a first-year Faculty of Science student, who died March 17.
It was such a sad week for all, especially for the families, who the entire Western community keeps in their hearts and minds. Let’s hope our few words on their passing gives small comfort, knowing we are thinking of them in the moment, but also knowing these will not be the last words spoken on their loved ones.