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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Stretching Comfort Zone Adds Voices, Enriches Stories

The Hinsdale, Ill. McDonald's: scene of the comfort zone-stretching encounter in 2003.

Telling stories is a never-ending series of judgment calls.

What do we put in? What do we leave out? When do we stop? Where on earth do we begin? Is my deadline really three minutes away?

From that long list of self-inquiry, let us focus on one of the most important—and imposing—questions of all: To whom do we give a voice in our story, whether it’s a news release, a media pitch or a marketing piece of some kind?

A decade ago, as a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I had an assignment that challenged me to confront this issue head-on.

The story was straightforward enough: Write a business feature on the reopening of a McDonald’s in Hinsdale, Ill. It is located in the backyard of the fast-food titan’s headquarters, about a half-hour outside Chicago, and reflects the corporation’s vision to create more “fresh, bright and inviting” restaurants.

A necessary step, then, was to check the place out. I noted the décor, chatted with the store manager, and gathered some comments from a few customers. But those patrons were all teen-age guys, and I wanted views from a cross-section of folks.

So I approached a woman who looked to be in her 40s. She was flipping through a magazine, a coffee cup on her table, when I identified myself and asked her what she thought of the new-look restaurant.

She looked up with wide eyes, seemingly in alarm. She gasped for breath and shook her head. Now I was alarmed.

Uh-oh, I thought. She’s about to go berserk on me. That’s just terrific—my editor’s going to get a call from the McMuckety-Mucks over at the corporation demanding that this Baron guy stop bothering their customers.

With that PR fiasco flashing before my eyes, I rushed to reassure the woman: “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. That’s OK—I’ll talk to someone else.”

Uncomfortable and slightly annoyed, I was on the verge of walking away when she finally broke her silence. “I’m deaf,” she said. “I think you are saying you are with a newspaper and working on a story?”

Fascinated, impressed, humbled—and relieved—I took a nearby seat and began speaking with the woman. She had the ability to hear for much of her life, but had gradually lost that sense and had become a proficient lip reader. Her speaking ability was about as good as the next person’s.

She was waiting for her husband. He is also deaf, and had a nearby appointment related to a device he hoped would restore his hearing some day. At my prodding, she told me more about this new technology that held the promise of giving this couple a gift that so many of us take for granted.

Though her drama had no place in this story, I was determined to give her an equal opportunity to make a comment related to my assignment. And despite her doubts that she had anything profound to share, I persisted.

“It’s beautiful,” she said of the new-look McDonald’s. “What a nice place to wait.” As it turned out, her quote concluded the story.

Why proceed amid the awkwardness? Because our stories gain depth and character to the extent that we stretch our comfort zone in reaching out to different, and unexpected, sources. Have you gone a long time without some form of discomfort? Beware—you may well be stagnating.

Not only that, but these discoveries often open doors to even more intriguing stories. I found this woman’s situation far more compelling than the assignment at hand, and it could well have been something to dig into further.

When we keep an open mind, and toss aside the confining influence of our preconceived notions, we are better equipped to capture the heart of a story as we find it—not as we think it should be found.

My restaurant encounter is along the “man on the street” vein, but the benefit of expanding our comfort zone extends to any kind of story. We tend to relate most to people who, at least on the surface, appear to be like us. They look like us, talk like us, dress like us.

What a dull—and incomplete—world we depict when we pigeonhole our inquiry in this way.

Checkmate: Page 1 Wednesday Journal Photo Mirrors My Recent TribLocal Contribution

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then two remarkably reminiscent photos ought to be worth at least a 250-word blog post.

An image from my impromptu photo shoot on Aug. 17.

Two weeks ago, as I loaded my kids into the family van outside my office near downtown Oak Park, I noticed two men playing chess on the trunk of a taxi. It was too cool of a visual to pass up, so I grabbed my camera, snapped a few photos and wrote a brief account, with three photos, of the scenario at TribLocal.

One of the three photos that I posted at TribLocal.

A week later, on page 7 of TribLocal’s Aug. 25 print edition for the Oak Park area, the vignette appeared.

Lo and behold, two days ago, the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest featured a strikingly similar photograph (below) on its front page—showing the same cabbie, Bobby Johnson, and a different rival chess player.

From the front page of the Aug. 31 Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest

Did my work spark the creative juices of Jason Geil, the Journal’s prolific and talented photographer? Or was it just coincidence? (Editor’s note, after this original blog post: It was indeed coincidence, according to Geil, who has since become a friend.)

In either event, when I saw Johnson (again) playing chess outside my office on Wednesday afternoon, I had the pleasure of giving him the TribLocal edition in which he appeared as well as tipping him off to the WJ coverage.

Now, it’s a matter of waiting to see if the national media starts swooping in on Johnson’s cab-trunk gamesmanship.


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Media Free-For-All Presents Opportunity

Some thoughts spring to mind on the heels of the Democratic National Convention, where bloggers played an increasingly influential role.

In 2000, when I began working a four-year stretch as a freelance reporter for Time magazine’s Chicago bureau, I was amused by the speed with which sources returned my calls.

If I had called those same people less than a year earlier, toward the end of my eight-year stint at a relatively small daily newspaper (see my newspaper photo, circa 1998), the response rate would not have been nearly the same.

Back then, sources could pretty well gauge the reach and clout of a given media outlet and respond–or not–accordingly. Nowadays, as communication channels have expanded exponentially, the landscape has changed. Today’s media titan may well be on the outs tomorrow, and vice versa.

This presents a major opportunity for any professional communicator, whether they wear the hat of blogger, journalist, publicist or beyond, to jump into the fray and distinguish themselves as a first-class story-teller.

That is something that will never go out of vogue–the ability to tell stories in a clear, engaging way that informs and/or entertains your audience.