Death Becomes Them Obituary writing is 98% perspiration

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • 01/2024

by Karen Feld

Death Becomes Them Obituary writing is 98% perspiration and 2% expiration. Or so they say.


It was just another day on the obituary page of The New York Times. Robert F. Borkenstein, 89, was prominently remembered as the “Inventor of the Breathalyzer.” He was directly adjacent to Steven Yokich, 66, who “Headed Auto Workers Union.” What really got our attention was an unusual pair at the fold: Willis Hudlin, 96, “a Pitcher Who Excelled for The Indians,” alongside David Williams, 30, “Singer in Rock Band.” Hudlin’s went three columns wide and had a picture – of Hudlin in an ancient Cleveland uniform; Williams’ went one column and had no picture, although the band’s name did leap out: Drowning Pool.

All of which got us to wondering: What’s going on at the obituary pages of the major newspapers of our Shuttle cities? Is theirs a dying art, or a thriving one? And who makes the cut these days?



“Ryma was too young to die,” wrote the Washington TImes. “So perhaps he deserves this obituary.” Read on… Ryma was a giraffe at the National Zoo. Keltie, a gray seal at the National Zoo who died of unknown causes in September 2002, rated more than 350 words above the fold on the Washington Post‘s obit page, as did Taj, a white tiger, the following month.

From an editor’s standpoint, the demise of Ryma the giraffe makes a more eye-catching story than many obituaries. Exotic zoo animals don’t die every day, after all. And who would want to take chance with the ghost of a tiger?

But adding animal deaths to the obit page can make space pretty tight – maybe too tight, since the Washington Post‘s seven-person obit staff prepares 6,000 human obits that see print each year, according to obit editor Richard Pearson.


Writing about the dead is a tricky trade, but Pearson is trying to simplify it. “We’re in the business of communicating and making the language more accessible to the reader,” he says. The Post is getting away from the traditional code phrases: For example, it’s OK to say someone was a “fan of sports,” but not a “sportsman” because that implies that he was a gambler.

For famous Washingtonians, the staff prepares obits in advance; the Post has about 100 ready to go, so to speak. One of those was for J. Carter Brown, who had been the director of the National Gallery of Art for 23 years when he died of cancer last June. He was a credit to Washington and to the human spirit. Yet when he died, the Washington Times was caught with its obituary pants down and buried an Associated Press wire story while the Washington Post and The New York Times ran detailed obits on the front page. While correcting its oversight, the paper swiftly wrote an obit for the employee responsible as well.

But more and more, the page commemorates the lives of ordinary folks, too. It’s not unusual to see “volunteer” or “homemaker” in a newsprint epitaph. “The majority of our obits are elementary school teachers and taxi drivers,” says Pearson, who has made a career of this form of writing for almost three decades. “It’s a biography, not a eulogy,” he says. “We tell the truth and try to include fascinating details.” In many cases, the item in the newspaper contains the first and last words readers will ever see about the subject’s life. Perhaps some of those words will inspire the living to lead more purposeful lives, and offer the dead something they always wanted: immortality.


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