1. Obits are news too: A funny thing happens to some journalists when confronted with doing an obit. Itıs the "I have to do an obit?" syndrome. It's as if doing an obit is something outside the realm of day-to-day news reporting. It's not. It's news reporting too. When we write news, we are forced to dig for details and information that is interesting. We look for themes. We think about how to hook readers. We look for the unusual. Obits should be no different. Probe. Ask a lot of questions. You're still investing in a main character and writing a human interest story. . . you just need the help of supporting characters to tell the story.
2. Share a life: Obituaries are among the most read stories. And among the most circulated and photocopied by readers. (Heck, last month my mother gave me a photocopy of an obituary of some teen I didnıt know -- mom thought it was just an interesting, inspiring story.) Many months ago, a prominent member of our community died. A friend of the man visited our newsroom to request that a story be done. We did just that. A week later, the man called me back. He said the story was the talk of the curling club where the deceased was a member. "You captured exactly the kind of person he was," said the friend. "Thank you." I later learned that the story had been photocopied and put on every table at the club for all to see. People were celebrating a life. . . and some excellent journalism.
3. Itıs not about who you know: I've had someone tell me their newsroom wouldnıt be doing an obit on a prominent person in their community because the reporters didn't know the person. Huh? That's a disservice to readers, not to mention one of the aims of our profession to seek out the new. It's never about who you know or donıt know. It's about telling stories. Good stories. About people that matter to the community. Not about people who matter to the newsroom. An obit on Mr. Johnson from the Rotary Club can be just as compelling as one on Mr. Walker, the journeyman handyman who fixed toilets in the local seniors apartment complex.
4. Youıre not writing a death notice: Formula obit writing -- where a reporter gathers only basic background on birth, education, marriage, career, family, funeral arrangements and throws in a few one-sentence quotes from friends is mechanical. It's simply an expansion of what usually appears in a death notice. Readers have likely seen the death notice. Now they want to learn more about the person. Go beyond basics.
5. The woes of a long time: It's a vague, lazy word that's common in obits. If someone dies at age 88 and was a longtime farmer, report some value for readers. Quantify longtime. Thereıs a big difference between a longtime farmer of 25 years and longtime farmer of 60 years. Fact is, longtime means nothing to readers. We seldom write that a couple was longtime married. So why is it OK for other facets of life? A lazy reporter would write that Tyrannosaurus Rex lived a long time ago. A detail-oriented reporter would write that Tyrannosaurus Rex lived 65 million years ago. History will be vague if we report in generalities rather than detail.
6. "I feel like I know this person. . .": The best obits are the ones where a reader finishes the article and can say, "Wow. I feel like I know this person. He/she seemed like someone who was very special." Some of the best obits can also inspire others by showing a person's courage and wisdom. . . often, itıs a circumstance that we may have faced, or may face in the future. Perhaps it's dealing with an illness. Or maybe it's a tale of achieving success.
7. Anecdotes, anecdotes, anecdotes: The last time you were at a funeral home, do you remember what people talked about? Chances are they told stories. Happy stories. Stories that made people laugh. Weıre not talking one-liners such as "I really liked him" or "He was a great guy" or "He had a real sense of humour." (Note: If you put any of these in your obit, youıve left your readers hanging. He was a great guy? He had a sense of humour? Hey, that's unique. There are millions of people on this planet who are great and have a sense of humour. Tell me why this person stood out? Give examples.) Readers will only get to know the person if you can 'show' their life experiences through stories. Everyone has a favourite story. Ask. Itıs part of the grieving process to remember the good times. When someone dies, our heads are filled with stories. Sometimes we forget to ask the basic question: Can you tell me one story about (name here) that sums up who he/she was?
8. Avoid the blood & guts approach: Years ago a popular swim coach was murdered. A reporter lost an opportunity for a human interest story on the victim because the family was asked 'blood & guts' questions right from the outset. They were offended by the insensitive approach. The family didnıt want to talk about blood & guts. They wanted to talk about their loved one. Because of a reporterıs blood & guts approach, the family shunned comment. It would be many months later when a family friend suggested if we reapproached the family in the proper manner they would be prepared to talk. We did. The family talked. And our readers got a human interest story on the life of the victim. It's too bad it came months late.
9. People die at the end of life, not at the beginning of an obit: Unless it's a story about death as result of an accident, resist the temptation to write the 'He died yesterday' lead. There has to be something more interesting to a life than burying the person in the lead. Most obits carry a headline or kicker that reads 'Obituary' so your readers will already know itıs a story about someone who has died. Let's help the reader get to know someone's life. Thereıs no hard rule that says "He died yesterday" has to go in the first, second or third paragraph. Thereıs nothing wrong with putting the "He died" sentence in the 10th graf. Or the 22nd. Be more concerned with telling the story of a life. The "He died" sentence will eventually find a place. Donıt force it.
10. Give the family a chance: Over the years, I've seen it happen more than once. A family was not contacted for comment about a loved one. A journalist simply assumed they wouldnıt want to talk in their time of grief. It was an incorrect assumption. The family wished someone had been given the opportunity. Let the family know that you would like to talk to them, if they wish. Contact the family, call a relative or use the funeral home as a go-between. If the family doesn't want to talk, respect their wishes. (When my grandfather, a former police officer and founder of a large police association, died about 20 years ago, our family called the newsroom of a large metropolitan daily newspaper. We hoped they would do a story. We were proud of grandpa and thought his story should be told. The newspaper agreed and did a story. We still have that article tucked away. Itıs a special keepsake.)