The obituary page floats in the newspaper the way death floats in life—a neighboring province we cannot visit, only stare at, its portent as unsettling as a hearse parked at a carnival.
The obits serve as the final revolving door, one day admitting a general, the next a poet. Bureaucrats, bookbinders, tax auditors, teachers, sergeants, psychologists, actors, admirals—the entries are a found poem of lives lived in print large and small. For the accomplished, the obituaries offer a conclusional bow in the spotlight; for the notorious, a final chance at judgment, pro and con; for Joe Citizen, that once-in-a-lifetime headline of one’s own.
We the living, of course, get the real message. Rejoice, rejoice, the obituaries sing to us; your appointment in Samarra hasn’t come—yet.
Everyone is not necessarily eager to be reminded. Some readers prefer death by misadventure, mayhem, or murder, satisfying their morbid curiosity under the guise of absorbing news. Dodging the graveyard, they emulate John O’Hara’s traveler—and, like him, fail to realize that no matter what the route of a life, its destination is fixed. More valiant readers follow the old vaudevillian’s maxim: They wake up and scan the Irish sports page; if they’re not on it, they get out of bed.
The nearer one’s own appearance in the section, the fiercer one’s interest, but the deathwatch extends beyond the old and the sick. According to a Newspaper Guild survey, more than half of all regular readers of daily papers read every obituary, every day. But that popularity does not extend to newsrooms, where the obituary desk is regarded as a boot camp for fledglings, a rest home for hacks and geezers, a stockade for those whom management would destroy. Newsies will do anything to escape the dead beat, except for a few reporters who embrace obituary writing with the quiet zeal of stonecarvers, finding that death is a fine lens through which to view life.
“I’m going to be the last guy at the Post to write about World War II,” says Richard Pearson, pleased to have a forum in which to address his favorite subject. Pearson, 47, grew up in a suburb of Chicago. He hired on at the Post in 1971, fresh from an undergraduate career at American University. In 1977, he joined the then-new obituary news bureau, and has worked there since. He’s sent perhaps 15,000 decedents on their way, whether in three-inch squibs summing up lives of no stature, or front-page carronades that call on his knowledge of history, politics, culture, and military minutiae.
The obituarists occupy the corner of the Post newsroom nearest the fifth-floor elevators, a proximity to the exit that underlines the ephemerality they broadcast. Last year, construction crews scraped the whole place down to its reinforced concrete essence and replaced everything, including the computer system. Now acres of tasteful gray industrial carpet cover the vast space, complementing a maze of dark metal cubicles where computer monitors ride hydraulic desktops that lift and drop to suit each staffer’s physical stature. The obit niche is orderly and dignified, a place entirely sufficient to the task of interment by ink.
As members of D.C.’s largest obituary unit, Pearson and four colleagues stack about 5,000 obituaries a year, compared with fewer than 1,000 at the Washington Times, 300-plus at the weekly Washington Afro-American, and more than 350 at the Washington Blade, whose entries tilt sharply toward deaths from AIDS.
In an average week, a Post obituarist writes about 25 stories; however, on atypically busy days a writer might have to crank through a dozen in a single shift. Besides the workload, obituary writers must deal with sources who themselves are under great strain. The job is not one for those inclined to grab at glory or easily rattled by humankind’s fragility.
“This work brings you face to face with the fact that this is a society in which there is no place for death,” says longtime Post obit writer J.Y. Smith, who began to hone his own sense of mortality as a Marine fighting in the Korean War. “There is not much room for the elderly or for death and dying, yet the fact of the matter is that dying is as natural as being born. It is a neutral fact—part, as the current song says, of the circle of life.
“When I tell people what I do, they react as if I were an undertaker—their comments are along the lines of “You gotta be kidding….That must be a terrible job….I don’t envy you.’ It is a variant on the societal reaction to anything involved with death. My years in obituaries make death seem not so fearful. I am closer to accepting it as a natural part of the scheme of things. Most people who hear about my work think that I have to deal with grief. I have to tell you, grief is the least of it.”
Smith had his epiphany shortly after starting with the obits bureau. “It was a gray day in November, around 5 p.m.,” he says. “I looked up from my desk to see an erect old gentleman wearing a raincoat. He introduced himself as a retired lieutenant colonel who was there with the obituary of a classmate from West Point, and could I assist him? I said yes and looked through the material. He started talking and suddenly he started crying. It occurred to me that these fellows had been together since 1918 or 1919. They had walked together upon the plain at West Point, and they had seen service after World War I in places like Texas and North Dakota and the Philippines and Hawaii,” Smith says. “This was during the years when there were almost no promotions in the Army, not much pay, and no one caring about what they did. Then along came World War II and their careers were fulfilled, and they retired to Arlington to play golf. Now one of them had died, and here sat the other. It was evident that one of the most difficult things for this gentleman was to be seen crying. Like a shot I said, “Sir, do not be embarrassed by your tears. They do you credit and they honor your friend.’ He said, “Thank you.’ That was a great moment. Ever since, I have been entirely comfortable with the grief aspects of the job.”
The job also demands a high degree of comfort with a low profile. “Unlike a lot of reporters, we are not writing for other writers or for editors,” Pearson says. “No one in this building is talking about our stories. We are writing for posterity, and for the families of those who have died. And our work is the opposite of most journalism, because the stories come to us.”
Pearson has headed the bureau since 1990. Genial and heavyset, he radiates an anodyne presence, albeit one slightly sardonic, and with good reason. All deadline work involves pressure, but obituaries combine the metallic squeals of daily closing times with the drone of the assembly line. On other beats, the workload ebbs and flows; in obits, you simply never finish. People are dying to get into your section.
Every paper has its thanatopic idiosyncrasies. The Louisville Courier Journal makes a big show of correcting yesterday’s errors. The New York Times prides itself on an eclectic mix of stories that no one else runs. At the Post, the obits page displays that rarest of Washington attributes: local loyalty.
“We go by residence rather than rank, although there are obvious exceptions. You always have that have-to/ought-to split,” says Pearson. “The New York Times will not let an Ivy League professor die without a few lines. At the Post, a political science professor from Howard or American University is going to get a ride, but the chairman of a department at Princeton who has not lived in the Washington area is not, unless there is some other reason.”
But mere proof of temporary residence is no guarantee of a story. “Washington is unlike other cities in that people come here for brief periods in their careers and then move on,” Pearson says. “You get a call about a man who was a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department for five years during the Truman administration, then lived somewhere else. We are not going to do that story. However, his secretary, who lived her whole life in Bethesda, will get an obituary here.”
If the dearly departed has departed D.C. more recently, chances for a story increase. “You should have lived here longer than the period that you have been away from here,” says Pearson. “If you were here for five years, you’d better have been gone less than five years when you die.”
Obituary writers need to be fast, serious about the job, willing to accept drudgery—and it helps to have a feel for the past. “There’s an enjoyment to applying the sort of incidental knowledge that you pick up if you are interested in history,” Pearson says. “You can make a career in journalism knowing nothing about history, but if you are writing obituaries you need to know the way-back-when.”
To make a story crackle, Pearson looks for the telling datum, a thread linking the bare facts. “The beautiful thing is that when you are writing an obituary you are not writing your opinion or your interpretation,” he says. “You are uncovering a connection.”
He cites a call he took on a NASA mandarin. The data were there, but they didn’t add up. “He’d been born in Indiana and graduated from Purdue in agricultural engineering during the 1930s, then gotten a master’s in chemistry from Tufts, studying fertilizers,” says Pearson. “But how did a fertilizers specialist wind up working in space exploration?”
The dead man’s brother had called in the story. He explained to Pearson that during the Depression, the fertilizer business was flat, so scholarships were scarce. “He told me his brother got a fellowship studying explosives, which as we all know now are very close in chemical structure to fertilizer, and he went to work for someone named Goddard, who was interested in rockets or something,” says Pearson. “Of course, the Goddard was Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, and so by sheer accident this guy winds up in Washington working on the space program. It’s amazing how many times this happens during the interviews. I’ve got nothing and I ask the next question and I get an unexpected answer. Suddenly there is a complete logic to this kid who was born on a farm in Indiana working at NASA.”
In the quest for analysis, Pearson takes care not to sacrifice accuracy. “You can write yourself into huge traps. I am terrified of saying “first,’ “last,’ “only,’ “biggest,’ “smallest,’ and so forth,” he says. “When Vladimir Horowitz died, Richard Harwood, who was a crusty old-school managing editor, wanted to punch up Horowitz’s story by saying that he was the most popular pianist in the U.S. There was a debate that ended with one word: “Liberace.’ ”
If you have lived large enough, you getobituarists’ attention even before you croak. Smith, who previously held Pearson’s post, writes only “advancers,” as the trade calls obituaries of well-known people who have not yet crossed the bar. He has his work cut out. Owing to the press of daily business, the Post advance files are thin. Marion Barry’s obituary is ready to run when the Mayor-for-Life joins the ranks of the fallen, for example. But nightmares about the sudden demises of such complex and perennial headline-makers as Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, and Jordan’s King Hussein plague the obit writers’ sleep, and sometimes the nightmare erupts even when the Post has a story in the cupboard.
Last spring, Richard Nixon, whose Post obituary had been written well in advance by Haynes Johnson, lay dying in a New York City hospital room. Nixon’s byzantine personality and tumultuous career had driven Johnson to produce many rewrites, all stored in the legendarily antiquated news department computer. As the bell was about to toll for the man who made Watergate and the Post household names, the newsroom renovation, including the replacement of the news desk computer, was in full cry. During those fleeting moments when one system was shut down but its successor not yet started up, the news files were to go into a third computer. “We were going to put Nixon on the Style computer. We had 19 versions. We killed all but one—and it was the wrong one,” says Pearson. “We found out only by accident that there was a version on paper in the art department, where they were doing mock layouts. We were able to scan it back into the computer.”
But most lives don’t inspire two versions of a last-minute obituary, never mind 19 of an advancer, so most Post obituaries are written under daily deadline. That work occupies Pearson, Bart Barnes, Claudia Levy, and Luis Aguilar, who recently joined the unit as part of a two-year news internship. Occasionally the unit farms an assignment out to a reporter familiar with the life in question from covering it as part of a beat.
Illustrations are another hallmark of papers’ obituarial style. New York Times obituaries often run with photographs showing the subject in his or her prime—even if prime time was pre-Depression. The Post rejects that strategy. “We go by whether the person will be recognized on sight. A U.S. senator might get a big story, but no picture, because people don’t know what he looked like,” says Pearson. “But for an actor like Gale Gordon, we use a picture. You see that and you remember your deep dark past in the 1950s, when you were watching TV.” More often, Pearson and company forgo a photo, to make room for local stories. “We don’t want people thinking that if so-and-so hadn’t died that day, their father or mother would have gotten more space,” he says.
Parsing the contents of a sample day’s labor as he sits with a soda in the Post cafeteria, Pearson calls the July 7 obits page pretty typical, if personally annoying. “There’s a government official,” he says. “That drives me bats; I love to get a D.C. school principal on the page so I can knock out a foreign service officer who could order sweet-and-sour pork in 12 languages but who did nothing.”
The rewards to newspapers for running obits go beyond the psychic to the pecuniary. An obituary story at a smaller publication often includes funeral or memorial service information, but not at the Post. Anyone wanting an SRO wake at Gawler’s or Pope’s or Gasch’s or Danzansky-Goldberg’s has incentive to pay for a notice, and pay they do. At $8.19 a line per day, Post death and memorial notices constitute a steady and lucrative cash stream—about $150 daily per item, plus another C-note if a picture appears. Post death notice fees seem steep—hey, three days of a five-line ad for a used car only costs $37, folks—until you consider that the New York Times charges $22.35 a line per day for weekday and Saturday death notices and $26.50 on Sundays. Death, thy sting appears to be in the classifieds.
Large or small, obituary stories represent the essence of journalism: a single focus, a simple structure, and a finite goal: telling a life story with economy and grace. Verse chorus verse, and on to the next number, please. For this reason, Christopher Callahan, assistant dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., uses obits to teach basic reporting. “Obits are a great way to get into the concept of writing news free of a lot of peripheral points,” he says. “You are boiling a story down to its essential components.”
Callahan also uses analysis of obituaries as a pointy stick to puncture the pretense of objectivity. “Look at a sample obituary page and you’ll see quite a few former journalists,” he says. “From the general reader’s perspective, it looks as if, No. 1, journalists are terribly important and, No. 2, they are dying all the time. It is a clear, linear example of a complicated topic: how individual journalists influence the news. Just as we decide what is news, we decide who is news.” (Guilty as charged, acknowledges Pearson. “You have to conclude that journalism is the world’s most dangerous profession,” he says. “We tend to cover our own pretty well. On the wires, half the obits are for people like the Minot, N.D., paper’s sports editor. He’s got eight paragraphs; the Nobel guy has three.”)
By Callahan’s lights, few papers besides the New York Times excel at obituaries. “Most papers do great work on the major stories, but an extraordinarily poor job of writing day-to-day obituaries,” he says. “The Times is crafting each story so that it makes sense to the reader why they are writing the story.” Times obits sometimes break news, Callahan notes. “They write stories on obscure people that everyone else picks up the next day, because they are the only ones putting time and energy into this process,” he says.
Local coverage does not impress the journalist-turned-professor. “At the Post, 95 percent of their ledes are about where someone worked, which is not necessarily the lede,” he says. “That should be based on how someone is most well-known in the community. They haven’t asked why people care about this guy.”
The Post‘s tactic of sorting deaths by occupation reinforces D.C.’s image as a hive buzzing with worker bees, Pearson admits, but another logic is operating. “Until around 1990, all obituaries had headlines; that takes up an enormous amount of space, so we went to boldfaced names,” he says. “But when you run only “Anthony Smith,’ people want to know which one. If you slug it “Anthony Smith, Hotel Night Manager,’ they say, “Oh, Tony Smith from the Statler!’ It helps identify people. And we do not necessarily go with occupation, but with how someone is known in society.”
Until 1977, when the bureau was founded, critics could have been far harsher on the Post obituary effort. Stories were assigned willy-nilly. Reporters wrote obits as time permitted, which meant that obituaries mostly did not get written. Somebody would take a message, and it would get lost or, even worse, trigger some howler of a mistake, like a story about a veteran who apparently had served in World War II at age 12. For a paper still preening itself with the oil of Watergate, that would not do. Management decided to elevate the section to bureau status.
The first chief was J.Y. Smith, whose own obituary probably will mention that his daughter, the actress Yeardley Smith, got her first name from his middle name. (Hers will no doubt mention that she was the voice of Lisa Simpson.) Smith, who had come to the Post in 1965 from United Press International, didn’t seek out the obituary chief’s job. But it grew on him, and he helped the bureau grow into what it is today. In April of this year, he began working at home, dedicating his time to advancers. He spends between a week and a month on each story. He suggests, tongue-in-cheek, that his efforts prolong lives.
“One of the corollaries of writing advancers is that as soon as we do one, we guarantee that the subject gets X amount of additional life,” Smith explains. “When the Duchess of Windsor was 83, she was hospitalized with pneumonia, and I’m sure a flurry of obituaries were prepared. She lived to be 90.”
Like other Post obituarists, Smith says he loves to chronicle lives that are over. “If you like to write, there is hardly a better subject than life itself,” he says. “Death may be an occasion for sadness, but the subject of an obituary is life itself and that is always wonderful. The life may be good or bad, but it is always wonderful.
“Take a retired admiral who was a destroyer skipper during World War II. He headed a flotilla, and there they were off the Komandorski Islands in the northwest Pacific. The U.S. force was outnumbered, and its flagship was dead in the water, with the Japanese fleet bearing down on them,” he says. “The destroyers set off smoke and charged the Japanese ships with torpedoes and sent them to the bottom and our side won. It is something straight out of Horatio Hornblower. You could make movies out of this stuff.”
The formula for reporting such a story is as simple and complicated as life itself. “You find out the admiral had been awarded the Navy Cross,” Smith says. “You call the Pentagon’s history section and they fax you a little outline biography that gives all his decorations and quotes from the citations. It is easy to figure out what he did. You look at [naval historian Samuel Eliot] Morison for concordance and you are home free. In a day in the life of a writer, do you want a better topic than that?”
On a day that starts out bereft of big-deal deaths, the Post obituary squad squares up around 10 a.m., spends an hour on housekeeping, wire-checking, and competition-reading, then hits the keyboards. “We do not try to write X number of stories,” says Pearson. “We just write. I don’t worry about the lede item until the day is about to end, at 5:30 p.m. or so. When we go into the Metro budget meeting we often are still writing, and it could go even later than that. If we have somebody famous, they may want to put the person on Page 1 of the A section or Page 1 of Metro, or at least mention them in the key. That’s the kind of housework we’re doing at the end of the day.”
Pearson says 11 to 4 is the best time to call with a story—after the morning chores, but before the serious deadline grind. When that call comes, the obituarist wants to talk not to a funeral director or acquaintance, but a relative or close friend. “We have to deal with the family. The funeral home form is never accurate,” says Pearson. “We do not go into a huge amount of detail, but the more familiar the person on the other end of the phone is with the life of the person who has died, the less time it takes.”
Quotidian stories are wrapped up in a single conversation; mid- and lower-level accomplishments require scans of the trade’s standard reference works: Lexis-Nexis, Who’s Who, Current Biography, and specialty texts on everyone who has ever been in Congress, won a Nobel prize, or made a cultural contribution. The Post library can whip up clip files, as well as notes entered into the computer by reporters. And all the while, the clock races toward deadline.
Each interview proceeds in its own manner, as the reporters focus on the required information. Age, cause of death, all marriages, and offspring must appear; sometimes the rules cause friction. Arguments can arise over age, especially if a caller is a female sibling of the deceased. “She doesn’t want to give her late sister’s age because people will find out she is older,” explains Pearson. “But an obituary is a kind of biography, and nothing says so much in so little space as a person’s age. Whether someone has died at 17 or 97, a competently done obituary that gives the age helps the reader infer something about the person’s life. It sets the stage for writing about that life’s accomplishments. You could make the argument that when someone who is 97 years old dies you don’t need to give the cause or causes, but when you do 5,000 obituaries a year, you have to have a standard. It also can save trouble afterward.”
As an example of the value inherent in completeness, he cites author and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. A resident of the area when he died in 1990, Bettelheim was asphyxiated by a plastic bag he had placed over his head. The Post obit noted the suicide; the New York Times story did not. “They looked like fools,” says Pearson with the glee that only a competitor can muster. “They had to run a second-day story. It was laughable.” Now the Times usually includes a paragraph attributing an explanation of a death to a family member or other third party.
At day’s end, the obituary bureau negotiates for space with the Metro desk pagemasters. Paid death notices take precedence; sometimes they fill the six 22-inch deep columns on the page allotted obituaries each day. “That means we have to ask the news desk to find some space for us,” explains Pearson. “Let’s say we have two famous people in obituaries and six columns of news obits. But it’s a light news day, so Metro puts a news obituary on the front page, which frees space. Or it’s a big news day, and they can’t free the space, but they tell us that tomorrow we’ll have it. They’re awfully talented at that.”
If a caller has run the gauntlet of questions and a Post obituarist has promised to run an obituary, an obituary runs, according to the bureau chief. He adds an important caveat, however: The story may not run the very next day. “It is not a first-come, first-served arrangement,” says Pearson. “Cary Grant is going to beat your mom.”
Besides Cary Grant, your mom has to compete with a rising number of potential obituaries about folks far less famous. Since 1987, Pearson says, his section has increased by half in terms of number of stories and space dedicated to them. Regional growth, a pronounced graying of the metro area, and the paper’s broadening distribution are among the reasons. “We used to get calls from D.C., Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery, and Prince George’s. Fairfax was way out there. Now we get calls from the Eastern Shore, Prince William, Anne Arundel,” says Pearson. “We deliver and sell in those areas, we have bureaus in those areas, so it makes sense that we run obituaries from them.”
For lives lacking anything out of the ordinary, the average obituary interview lasts less than 10 minutes—mercifully, since those minutes can be highly charged. “But afterwards, the caller will often say that it was easier than he or she expected it to be,” says Pearson. “That’s not surprising; you are telling the story of someone’s life to a person who is very interested in that story.”
Still, not every caller has a happy experience. The intense emotions that grip survivors can lead to standoffs and hang-ups. “People can be incredibly angry when they call with a news obit,” says Claudia Levy. “We try to be precise, and it makes some people mad. They need a psychological counselor or a priest; instead, they call us and have to cough up details they never want to tell anybody.”
So why don’t callers fib? Because they’d probably get caught, if not by the interviewer, then by the facts. Like most experienced obituary writers, Levy has learned to sense dissembling. “People usually answer the question truthfully because they’ve been caught unawares,” she says. “If they aren’t telling the truth, they hesitate. Or they try to back out—”Oh, no, my mom wasn’t married before. I, uh, didn’t mean to say that….’ That’s when I start pressing. I tell them that if we learn after publication about another marriage, we are going to run a correction.”
But a determined hornswoggler can prevail. Obituaries is the lone section at the Post where reporters do not insist on a second source. “It is virtually impossible to check out every call,” says Levy. “We probably put a lot of bad information into the paper because we are relying on people’s guesses. Their memories are fuzzy and it is a trying time.”
Americans’ collective queasiness about mortality is never more obvious than in the language of the obituaries. For decades, savvy obit readers knew that “after a long illness” usually meant “cancer”—a convention that has faded as that disease has shed, if not its horror, then at least its taboo status. A similar tiptoeing style initially greeted AIDS, owing to its debut among gay men. “After a short illness” was a popular circumlocution, as well as inventive use of medical semantics. Those who die of HIV actually fall to a compromised immune system; families embarrassed at the imputation of homosexuality would trace the cause of death to any of many opportunistic infections. Now “died of AIDS” is much more common in obituary stories, as are references to the subject being survived by a lover or longtime companion.
Despite the divorce epidemic, multiple marriages remain a major point of conflict in obit calls. Several times weekly at the Post, survivor intransigence kills a story. “A caller recently told me no one in her mother’s church knew she had had an early marriage, and under no circumstances was she going to reveal the former husband’s name,” Levy says. “I tried to tell her that her mother had had a full life—good job, active in volunteer work—and it saddened me not to put that story in the paper. It amazes me in 1995 that people are so touchy about this subject.”
Survivors who slam down the receiver shortchange themselves of an important part of the grieving process, according to Elizabeth Haase, clinical director of the St. Francis Center, a bereavement counseling center headquartered on MacArthur Boulevard NW. “Rituals are extremely important for people in grief,” says Haase. “Writing the obituary, thinking about how you want the funeral or memorial service to take place—these things help us to know at some level that a person has died. They give us a sense of doing something when there is nothing left to do. When people don’t do these things, it is harder for the normal healing process to begin.”
Like memorial books from funeral homes and sympathy cards from friends, obituaries become talismans. They dot bulletin boards and hang on refrigerator doors. Survivors laminate the stories and carry them in wallet or purse. “People find comfort in rereading obituaries,” says Haase. “I have had clients say they read obituaries and find themselves relieved to know that someone out there must be in pain. People who have survived a younger person who has died will say, “When I read that someone young died, it made me feel less alone, less like a freak.’ It brings some sense of reality about death, that it is a part of life and something that we all go through.”
Race is never far from the surface of anything in D.C., and the obituaries are no exception. News obituaries in the Afro-American, the Washington Informer, and other black-oriented newspapers generally cover only persons of color, although the Afro will write up whites if circumstances demand.
“Just as the Post does not have as many African-Americans as we do, the Afro does not have many Caucasians,” says Afro-American obituaries editor Gwen Gilmore. “We will cross the color line the other way if a person was instrumental in the struggle of black people. We consider it an honorary addition to the page.”
The Afro does not demand all the information required by the Post. “If the family does not want to give the cause of death, we will still run the story,” says Gilmore. “And we will run a story as late as a month after the death; it is important to take notice of another person gone from the community.”
D.C. obituaries have been race-conscious as long as the city has had newspapers. Though the Post never segregated its obituary pages or paid death notices, or refused to run them, the paper historically was not popular for obituaries from black Washington. Until it closed in 1981, the Evening Star, whose Lincoln-style Republican politics had earned the affections of the city’s blacks, was African-American obit callers’ first choice among the big papers.
“The Star came into being before the Civil War, and there was a very long history of trust for it in the black community,” says Jane Levey, editor of Washington History, the journal of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. “The Post was founded in 1877, as Reconstruction was falling apart. It was always very race-conscious in its news coverage, whereas the Star was liberal on racial matters and easier to get into with an obituary.”
Snobbery among the city’s black bourgeoisie may have been another factor in the Star‘s popularity. According to ex-city editor Ben Gilbert, who retired from the Post in 1970 after 30 years’ service, the Daily News and Times-Herald had more black readers than the Star, but also carried less cachet. “My guess is that there was a certain elite element in the black community that read the Star,” says Gilbert.
With its 1954 acquisition of the Times-Herald, the Post greatly boosted its black readership, and when the News and later the Star folded, the surviving daily achieved a monopoly that has gradually eroded resistance among blacks to placing death notices there.
Her work has made Gilmore acutely sensitive to the blood tide engulfing so many of the city’s young. “We try very hard in our obituaries of young black men who die violently to include their education to the extent that they did go to school, their involvement in the community, their accomplishments in athletics,” she says. “We try to find out more than that they died suddenly and had no life, because that is not true. We try to investigate those lives just as we do others to find the good or meaningful things that they have done.”
In the same way that the epidemic of violent deaths of young blacks receives a more overt acknowledgement in black papers’ obit sections, the human cost of the AIDS epidemic gets its due in the gay press. Not every gay person dies of AIDS, of course, but the paper’s archives show a drastic increase in obituaries from three in 1981 to the 350 or so that run annually now.
“It is one of the best-read sections of the paper, and we look on it as very important,” says assistant managing editor Colleen Marzec, who has been overseeing the section since 1991. “We take a down-to-earth, neighborly approach. We try to make them very human, so that you can walk away and have an idea of who that person was.”
Refracting the life of a community within a community, Blade obits have a small-town flavor, replete as they are with quotes from friends and family members; mentions of hobbies, pets, and favored travel destinations; and lists of as many survivors as the paper can collect.
Last week’s Blade carried only three obituaries—for Marzec, a relief. “They take a lot of work and it is stressful to deal with that much death,” she says. In a heavy week, the paper runs more than a dozen lengthy stories, but the usual load is five to seven articles.
Calls drop in frequency before the holidays, whether because survivors can’t bear to deliver the news or patients don’t want to give up a hold, however tenuous, on life. “There are reports of people who might be near death trying to hang on for special events,” says Marzec. Her anecdotal experience bears out the theory. “The calls drop off right after Thanksgiving, but after Christmas we brace ourselves, because we know we’re going to see a surge.”
Since 1982 the Post has had a minor business competitor and a stronger ideological challenger in the conservative, Unification Church-backed Washington Times. However, the Times‘ obituary presence is minuscule. Calls to the department can go unanswered, even at midday—probably because the editorial assistants who handle obits are busy with other chores. The Times reports the cause of death unless it is under investigation, but previous marriages are open for negotiation. “We don’t push hard on that,” says part-time obit writer Ted Gach. “If the family doesn’t want to say that a marriage ended in divorce, or if they don’t put it in the material they fax us, we don’t grill them.”
Because he can count coup elsewhere in the paper, Gach does not chafe at the Time’s policy of not crediting obituary writers. “I get bylines on other things,” says the 24-year-old, who views his tenure in obituaries as temporary. “I don’t have any love of obituaries,” he says. “I hopefully see myself having a career in reporting.”
Gach’s counterparts at the Post respectfully suggest that it is possible to consider obituary writing to be reporting, and for obituary reporting to fill a career no less effectively and satisfyingly than covering Capitol Hill or the White House. Not that many journalists agree.
“Because of the youth culture in journalism, death—except for violent deaths, which make good hard news—is not thought of as respectable journalism,” says Levy, who came to the obituaries bureau in 1990 after cycling through various Post posts since 1965. “People do not want to talk about death and old age and withering away and disease and all that obits stand for. If you are a veteran editor or reporter, doing obituaries is a kind of living death. You are no longer in hard news, no longer writing the kinds of stories that make your career advance.”
However, Levy finds obituaries a perversely refreshing change of scene. “After 25 years of always looking for the negative aspects of people’s lives, I have what is a rare opportunity in journalism today: getting families to focus on the positive aspects of their relatives’ lives, what they did that made them special, that made them a force for good, who they helped, where they were as young men in a war, what medals they got,” she says.
And Levy sees in the jumble of daily obituaries a reminder of the tremendous unsung variegation extant in a city widely advertised as viewing matters in terms of black and white, up and down, winners and losers. “This is the one place in the paper where you can see the patchwork quilt of Washington laid out,” she says. “Often we say to each other, “I wish I’d known about this person when she was alive. She would have made a great story.’ That is the phenomenon of obituaries—there are hidden treasures among those who die.”
But treasure hunters always pay a price. Tell someone you write obituaries and the reaction is universal. “It’s the same inside and outside the Post building,” says Levy. “People grimace.”
Like any cadre of scorned but needed specialists, seasoned practitioners of the obituary arts respond to derision with a degree of smugness. “People assume the job is so simple they can do it five minutes before deadline and get it all right. Invariably the story does not contain all the information it is supposed to contain. We laugh about it,” says Levy. “When some big dome from another department deigns to do an obit, we sit around shaking our heads. It inevitably winds up in the paper with wrong information.”
Obituary writers give great phone. Their voices are calm, precise, neutral. If any sector of journalism might seem the logical repository of uproarious anecdotes, it would be the obituaries desk at the Post. But the tales are of the off-the-record variety, except for vague references to efforts by the “glass offices” (like prized pet reptiles, Post panjandrums occupy terrarium-style digs) to secure coverage for their dead buds. And although the stories are funny, a gravitas underpins them.
The sensibility envelops obituary desks across the city. Obit writers work in the valley of the shadow, and it marks them. They speak gently of their subject, and of their subjects. Afro-American obituaries editor Gilmore says it does not make her maudlin or sad, but neither does it rest blithely.
“It is more than a job,” she says. “It is an important assignment; I take it as a privilege. An obituary is the last article that is ever written about that individual. Each story is not just a body gone but a person who was very involved in a church or in raising a child, making plans to do something in their life. It is not the story of a statistic, but a soul.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.