Why I Read The Obits and You Should Too

The gravestone of Col. John Hart in the North ...
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Morbid? Not really. Deeply curious, ever seeking wisdom about what makes up a life, whenever it ends, I read obituaries. They’re the profiles written past deadline.

As someone forever seduced by others’ stories — whether covering Queen Elizabeth or interviewing convicted felons — I read the obituaries. Not just the official ones, which, if you read The New York Times, are almost always about men.  I also read many of the paid ones, the ones in a font so small it’s almost illegible. That’s where the heart-breaking stories appear.

The Globe and Mail, one of the papers for whom I’ve been a reporter, runs a regular column called Lives Lived, obits written by friends, family or colleagues, often about civilians, non-celebrities,  the kind of people we all take for granted and know only as a high-school teacher or next door neighbor. I find these tributes lovely, and often deeply moving in their detail. Here’s one about a woman whose husband ran a taxi company. More than anything, more so than taxes, death is the ultimate democracy.

Today there are two women, 47 and 48, whose death notices in The New York Times, my local paper, hit me hard.

Rebecca Lipkin, a fellow journo I never met but who clearly had a kick-ass career as a broadcast journalist and news producer for WABC, ABC World News Tonight and ABC Nightline, worked in the U.S. and London, where she died at 48 of breast cancer. She was not married and had no kids. She could be me. She could one of the many  ambitious, driven, talented women I know and have met along the way of my journalism career who perhaps kept postponing love or domesticity for the surer gains of work, who consider airports and international carriers the equivalent of the family minivan, whose life is spent chasing the next great story and making sure it’s told well.

Rynn Williams, 47, a poet, and mother of three, died at her home in Brooklyn “of accidental causes.” She could be any one of us. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death for Americans, with 121,599 who died this way in 2006. (The top four, in order: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease.)

I read obits because so many strangers fascinate me. I read obits because I want to hear what others say about them and how they are remembered by those who knew and loved them best, not just those wealthy, powerful or famous enough to have a reporter call up and formally interview their colleagues or family. My favorite paid obit, so far, was of an older woman who died in Florida, clearly a woman of means who had not worked. “She’d shake the ice for anyone,” her family wrote. I can’t forget this detail, of a woman who so loved to entertain that a cocktail shaker helped define her sense of generosity and fun. I wish I’d known her. So often, I read an obit of a non-famous, non-wealthy person I’ve never heard of and think: “Wish I’d met you. What a cool life. How loved you were!”

Below Rynn Williams’ obit today is that of Molly Wolff, 89 who died only three months after her husband, Louis. “During the last years of his life, she never left his side, singing to him and holding his hand late into the night.”

That’s great writing, the kind of telling detail every would-be journo needs to read and remember. That’s a woman to celebrate.

What would your obit say about you? What would you want it to say? Who would you most like to write it?

23 thoughts on “Why I Read The Obits and You Should Too

  1. Such a great post and a fascinating topic. My 26-year-old sister started reading obits after our mom died. She says it’s because “you never know” and she wouldn’t want to miss a chance to pay her respects if someone she knew passed away.

    Personally, I’ve always thought obit writing would be interesting journalistic work – telling the story of another’s life, picking out the moments that meant something and making them fit together. But then again, the thought of someone doing that with *my* life makes me nervous. So maybe I’d like to write my own obit?


  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks, Katie…I was reading the Globe obits once on the train home to NY from Toronto…and, to my horror, read that the sister of a college ex, someone I’m still close to, had been killed in a horrible bike accident. While it was awful, I was glad I knew and had the chance to call and offer condolences. However Victorian that may sound, I think it’s one of our most important impulses.

  3. einsiders

    As a women writing obits for EInsiders, I would love to hear from other women. It is hard to find out about women in the entertainment industry who have died unless they are a famous actress but EInsider’s obits include costume designers, make up artists, script writers and anyone else connected to film and entertainment. I know the women are out there! Here is my obit for Rebecca Lipkin


  4. I would hope that my obit made clear I wasn’t a total screw-up no matter how much larking I did, and my sister should write it, because she knows me better than anyone. I also hope she’s about 40 years away form writing that text.

  5. thomasmedlicott

    Thanks Caitlin,
    Not only are you a writing dynamo but your topic is one of my favorites. Yes, the small font obits – usually written be a family member are the most poignant. The guy who was involved with Little League for forty years, the mom who made costumes for the Christmas Pageant. I try to buy old photo albums, recipe boxes, journals, etc. whenever i can. sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can follow a life for decades – I follow you and Brian Bennett. Tom Medlicott, Redlands

  6. Laurie Essig

    Caitlin- I share your fascination with the obit as literary genre. But also personal ads. One is a short narrative of a life lived; the other an even shorter narrative of a life or perhaps at least a self imagined. Both tend to be incredibly optimistic representations of our actual lives.

    I suppose my obit should read like a personal? SWF looking for eternal rest. If you like to haunt the children and find playing poltergeist with your old boss amusing, LTR possible.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Laurie, personal ads are hopelessly difficult. But I like your version!

    Scott, here’s hoping for 60 years…

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Thom, I also love old photos and postcards, ephemera as they’re known in the trade. Sadly, we’re all ephemeral. What will happen to all our posts 100 years from now? Maybe we should be transcribing?

  9. I got the habit from my great-grandmother. When I was a child, she had me read them to her. I realize now, why: she was observing her friends die.

    I read them to get a sense of my city and communities. When I was at Brown, in the 70s, I realized an entire generation of immigrants was dying. How? Because I read the obits each and every day.

  10. iskid2astop

    I live in a small town, with a paper, and the obits are large. A full page, most entries with pictures, the equivalent of a page 12 article. The things that people do are always inspirations to me. So much done, so many lives touched, and so little time for me to live, at least it feels that way.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Afi, it’s interesting you read them so avidly as a college student. I didn’t start until perhaps a decade ago as my parents’ friends and some of ours, sad to say, have begun to die. It’s probably a life marker that you start out reading the wedding announcements, birth announcements and then the obits as your peers move through these stages.

  12. Caitlin Kelly

    iskid, I hear you. One of the things I find so compelling about obits is reading what people accomplish, even if “all” it was meant creating a web of people who adore them or found their lives changed by their love or skill. In our fame-obsessed culture, what matters most? I think often the of the Three Fates, the one who spins the cloth of our lives, the one who measures its length and the one who cuts the thread. She scares me the most!

  13. andygeiger

    so morbid! i admire my dear Grandma’s perspective: she reads the obits to see who her date is going to be for the bluebird special at Denny’s… life is for the living!

  14. Last year when my grandmother died, my mother asked me to write the obit for the local, small-town newspaper. What’s the point of having a writer in the family?, she said. It was an interesting exercise for me, to try to sum up the life of a woman with whom I had spent so much time. The next day, we spent the entire day receiving people at the funeral home. At least 80% of those who dropped by to pay their respects asked if I had written it and told me how moved they were by it. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much feedback on a piece of writing in my career. I was struck by the effect it had. What an awesome burden, then, to be the obit writer for a newspaper?

  15. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for your story, Jody. I’ve thought about what I might say about my Dad or Mom, luckily both alive and healthy, and how to sum up someone’s character. At my Dad’s recent 80th., we made toasts and that helped me think through some of this.

    I think an obit writer for a paper has a tough job, depending who reads it, i.e. local paper versus national. I find the NYT ones often just too dry and focused on achievement rather than the more personal details that make us individuals, lovely or less so. I bet the challenge is when, or how, to show at least a few of the warts and not just make nice.

  16. Jen Doll

    I love this post. Just yesterday I read the obit of Charles Houston, leader of a failed Himalayan expedition: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/01/us/01houston.html?hpw).

    Even though I’m by no means an adventurer or even someone who does much hiking, the courage and character recognized is something I’d like to see in my obit…not that I’d be around to see it, of course.

    I also think obits are interesting from a writing perspective. So many characters, so many real-life details. I had a creative writing teacher who recommended that we read them regularly. Her favorite was the obit of the man who created the “beep beep beep” backup noise for trucks.

  17. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks, Jen. When I teach journalism, I often assign student to research and write an obit of someone they know personally, forcing them to really get to know the little details that make up who we are.

  18. rob p

    Our local paper is small with usually a half dozen or so obits a day. I generally read them if they are really long or if the person was young or had a familiar name. If you were really old, had an unfamiliar name, and didn’t do much during your life, I’ll probably skip over you.

    No classifieds for me but on the same page is a section for missing dogs. I check to see if Roxy is still missing and thus listed. (He’s a pomeranian, black, that went missing over a year ago. His owner must really love him.)

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