Well, I’m so pleased to sub for (struggling) author JS Bateman this week. I don’t know why he bothers with novels if he wants to get work as a writer? I write obituaries folks, and business is always good. Tax collectors and obit writers have little to fear during market downturns, am I right?
Do you enjoy reading obituaries? Why? Do they sharpen your perceptions of life and death? Do you find yourself measuring your priorities and accomplishments against tales of lives fully-lived? What makes you continue to read an especially lengthy one? And…do you think about how you would write your own obit, or that of a loved one?
I’m here to help! I spent 2 1/2 wonderful years writing the obituary page for the Logan Daily News before unfortunate circumstances caused me to relocate rather dramatically. To be perfectly honest, the obits there were dreadful before I came and they returned to their natural state with weeks. Why? Well, they were, and are, almost without exception, written after a person’s death following a form letter on the paper’s website so precisely that one really only need change the names and the photo at the top. “Ina Farmer was born on a farm, raised a gaggle of kids, enjoyed the approved hobbies of gardening, cooking, and knitting, then she died…” Arrgh. Then we list all her family members and their current status. Ina could have been 99 years old and we will still mention she was predeceased by her parents! All at $2.50 a line! I have another approach.
1. Write the obit, call it a “life story,” while the person is still living, with their participation. The best obits, after all, are LIFE stories, not death stories. Get the good stuff you never knew about Ina while she can still tell you. Maybe she liked to bellydance! What! Now THAT could make for an interesting conversation!
2. Skip the formula. Tell everyone they can be in the paper when it is their turn! Or stick all that stuff in a little box obit readers can skip over if they want while looking for the good stuff. Start with a “tombstone” or a “billboard.” The person’s life summed up in a single, powerful sentence, something to make the audience wish they had known the deceased if they didn’t. In a sea of knitters and cookie bakers, who wouldn’t notice an opening line about a bellydancing farmer’s wife?
3. Rescue the obit from the fate of the masses. You can flash back to the structure of someone’s life story, but you don’t have to tell every detail! Skip around a little. Add some color! I like the one about the guy who stuffed turkeys with popcorn on Thanksgiving. When the rear end blew off the turkey, it was done! Or the woman who could find the right bra size for a customer with a glance sans tape measure. She was 95 and a 34B. Good stuff!
4. Talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Talk about what you learned from the person. “Knew the value of a hard day’s work” is already taken BTW. “I wish I had spent more time at work,” said no tombstone ever! I mean lessons about how to live one’s life, good and bad. You can use understatement to get your point across, people will get it. “Told colorful stories” = liar. “Relished language” = windbag, and so on. I like obituaries that colorfully, if subtly for private persons, talk about them as they actually were, not how one thinks an obituary ought to look.
5. Close by throwing the reader a bone. My bellydancer obit closed with her husband’s answer to how he felt about her bellydancing. When I wrote it, I hoped readers would sort of see the twinkle in his eye when he said “who do you think picked the costumes out?”
So what do you think? Would an example help? Let’s try this. I’ll write a sample obit (aka life story) for one lucky reader of this blog post. Send me a message via JS Bateman’s FB page (I am having some trouble accessing social media at present) and if I find your story the most interesting, I’ll write a life story obit for you, or at least one you can update as you go along. Good luck!
Jason Blair, Member, International Great Obituary Writers Association, Nominee for Hall of Fame.