Obituary writing: an honor—and a serious responsibility

In my journalism career, I wrote or edited hundreds of obituaries. Most were everyday people who were not in the headlines much, if at all, over their decades of life. Some were notable individuals, and I would draw upon prior stories to flesh out this news of their passing.

Whether someone was renowned or a household name only in their own household, the bottom line for me was the same: this was a major responsibility that I took extremely seriously. Certainly, I strove to be conscientious in all aspects of my job, whether it was covering criminal courts, reporting on city hall, or featuring the folksy neighbor down the block.

But obits are a breed apart, and the reason is simple: barring a few exceptional cases, this is the last comprehensive story that will be written about the person. To honor their life, and those who loved them, it is essential to get the details right, and to do it well, and you only get one crack at it.

That passion for telling something so precious and unique as a person’s life story is at the heart of “Your Front Page,” a writing service that I launched in 2005.

My YFP clients have typically been the spouse or children of a person about to reach a milestone—60 years of marriage or 80 years of life, for example. The end product, a two-page custom publication that includes headlines, sidebars and photographs, is a surprise gift. Unsurprisingly, and to my humbled delight, it becomes a gift that keeps giving: multiple clients have told me how much they appreciate having the piece to share, years later, at wakes and other services after their loved one passed away.

This affirms my instinct, years ago, to begin using the term “nobituaries” to describe “Your Front Page” pieces—these stories were like an obituary, only the individual or couple being featured was still alive. Thus: “no obituary,” or “nobituary.”

Dru Carlson, female film pioneer.

As for actual obituaries, they are a recurring part of what I call my occasional “random acts of journalism.” Eight years ago was one of those times when I wrote the obituary of my dear friends’ father, Don Carlson. A few weeks ago came another opportunity, when I had the honor of writing about his widow, Dru Carlson.

As with her late husband’s career and overall life, Dru’s 87 years were remarkable in their breadth and impact.

On a related note, every two years, The Society of Professional  Obituary Writers honors excellence in obituary writing with The Grimmys.

If you read nothing else today, I invite you to read the most recent award-winning Grimmy work.

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