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Obituary Writers Get the Last Word

Top obit editors talk with Bob Edwards about this unique form of journalism and the demands of their job

Flowers on a grave

Alamy Stock Photo

Bob Edwards: Hello. I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP take on today.

It's counterintuitive perhaps, but obituaries have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life. That's a direct quote from Margalit Fox, a former New York Times obituary writer who wrote over 1400 obituaries. Fox made this observation in a documentary that focused on the art and science of obit writing. Today we explore the obituary as a means of documenting a life's milestones on the planet. What challenges faced the writer of yours or anyone's obit and how that challenge is met with grace. We're pleased to welcome Mike Ellison.

Mike Ellison: Thanks Bob.

Bob Edwards: Mike, I know you're as happy as I am to welcome an additional reporting voice to take on today and here with us now is Wilma Counsul.

Wilma Consul: Hi guys.

Mike Ellison: Hey Wilma, how you doing?

Wilma Consul: I'm all right.

Mike Ellison: I understand this as a a reunion of sorts. You and the legendary Bob Edwards have crossed paths before professionally. Is that so?

Bob Edwards: We worked down the road a bit at national public radio.

Wilma Consul: Yes. I was a producer for morning edition when Bob was the host of the show.

Bob Edwards: I was the labor.

Wilma Consul: And for my first assignment, I get to talk to Maureen O’Donnell, who is a Grimmy award winner. The society gives this award to professional obituary writers.

Bob Edwards: But first we had the opportunity to speak with Adam Bernstein, the obituaries editor for the Washington Post, and president of the society of professional obituary writers.

Adam Bernstein: My old boss used to say, "God is our assignment editor." You only have so much say over who you're going to write about. I mean, it's gonna be who who died is the first and foremost the question. Right? But a lot of the time we spent writing stories in advance because we have to be ready. The audience demands that we're ready because if they don't see the obituary in the Washington Post, they're going to go to the competition. We don't want that. We're very competitive, just like any other part of the newspaper. And that's a misconception that we're just sitting around writing eulogies all day and lovely stories about little old ladies who make jam in the suburbs. We don't do that. We are a very aggressive newspaper staff who wants to be ready on stories that are important to most readers. Our joke is we're ready when you are.

Bob Edwards: I think that should be the tagline for any journalist really, but it's especially fitting for the obits team at a newspaper.

Mike Ellison: Agreed, Bob. I was really interested to hear about Adam's favorite obituary and who would celebrate it. Let's check it out.

Adam Bernstein: My favorite obituaries are obits where I become a little bit of a teacher and a little bit of a historian and where I have to explain to readers who may have never heard about this movie star, old director, old screenwriter, just why they're important, what impact they had. Our job is very different from any other kind of journalism in the sense that most readers, most editors in the newsroom want to know what happened right now, right in this area. They're most attuned to the most immediate news that just happened around the block. And obituaries are about as far as you can get from that. What happened 50, 60, 70 years ago in Hollywood, or in London or New York. More recently the screenwriter, William Goldman died and he did Harper, he did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President's Men. He wrote the screenplay.

But the challenge for me then, is how do I explain to readers who don't care about or have never seen any of these films? And so what I did was I wrote it in a way to capture what he did so brilliantly. So instead of saying, "William Goldman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who did this, that and the other died." I opened it with the scene from Harper, which is a work of genius in screenwriting where Paul Newman plays this down and out detective and all you see is Newman getting up off of his office cot. He's clearly had a very ...

V.O.: Badly hung over, the detective rises from a foldout couch in his office. He turns off the TV that's been on all night, dunks his head in ice water, shuffles into the kitchen and prepares a fresh coffee filter, only to realize he is out of grounds. He opens a wastebasket, spies yesterday's filter, hesitates and fishes it out. He gulps from his mug with an expression of revulsion and resignation, imparting everything the viewer needs to know about his life. The rotten coffee is the least of his problems.

Adam Bernstein: And it tells you everything you need to know about that character. And it was a brilliant opening and I thought that's how I'm going to capture readers who have never heard of William Goldman.

Bob Edwards: We asked him about convicted sex offender and apparent sycophant of the 1%, Jeffrey Epstein, who recently committed suicide.

Adam Bernstein: I don't think we have to be balanced in the sense of giving two sides to the story of somebody like Jeffrey Epstein. With Epstein in particular, I begged off of involving our staff and writing it for a very specific reason and that is, I don't think he is a very important person. I think he is a revolting con artist with a taste for underage girls and an ability to charm the rich and not much more than that. He's not a charming rogue, like Ronnie Biggs, the great train robber from 1963 who led the police on a worldwide chase for 30 years and appeared in coffee commercials, commercials for instant coffee saying, "When you're on the run like I am, there's nothing that satisfies like a good cup of coffee."

I mean somebody like that, there's a wonderful story to tell. Or with Charles Manson, you know somebody who is emblematic of an era in a horrific way. It's more about the era, it's more about what the person represented. With somebody like Epstein, to me, that life feels very small and very awful and there's not much value in it. That may sound like an unusual thing to say, but I really don't think he makes a good obit story.

Now the question about do I feel an obligation to be balanced? Of course. I mean we're journalists, so we're not here to just talk about somebody's awful side. We're here really to humanize.

Mike Ellison: Bob, I found that really interesting and wanted to ask you about the decision Adam is making for a national paper of record. So wherever Jeffrey Epstein lived, Florida and New York, from what I understand, newspapers there would likely carry an obituary because he's been noted in those communities. Is that a fair assumption?

Bob Edwards: Well, you know, if this was not in the news and he lived in a small town, his family would likely provide the obituary. With larger news organizations, it's a decision about newsworthiness and that's what Adam's talking about. Papers make these calls all the time because you can only publish so much because of resources, time, staff, and the like. Adam made a fair call about the newsworthiness of the Jeffrey Epstein obituary, which may have displaced that of someone else. He spoke to this a bit more later in the discussion.

Adam Bernstein: At the Washington Post, we also write about, we also do very short takes on people who've lived in our community for a long time, regardless of whether they're newsmakers. So you'll have 100 words, or 75 words on an army colonel, or a church volunteer and people of that nature, not newsmakers, but people who lived here a long time. So we have a very challenging task of trying to maintain the flow of daily important newsmaker kind of obituaries with keeping up with the community news as well.

I like to see the obituaries page reflect a wide variety of different kinds of people in different professions and different diverse backgrounds. And first and foremost, the question is, did this person have an important impact, a palpable impact, something that you can see in a visceral way? Won a Nobel prize or a Pulitzer, was a major film star, beloved by millions of people, or was a notorious criminal, hated by millions of people. Somebody that people will want to read about, or who we think you may have never heard of, but you should because this person's life was fascinating, helped solve river blindness in Africa.

I've really tried to transform the reputation specifically at the Washington Post and more generally in how obituaries are perceived nationally, not the only guy doing it. There are a lot of very talented people out there, but that's sort of been the mission of my journalistic endeavors. There's an art to writing the obit, generally speaking, that's more common sense than anything else, but the art to reading an obituary is just keep an open mind. You don't care about old jazz. Fine. Give it a paragraph to see if we can interest you. The obligation's on us. If we can't do it, then we're to blame.

Bob Edwards: Thanks very much to Adam Bernstein and the hardworking team of writers of the Washington Post, creating a record that reflects humanity with earnestness and care. You can follow Adam Bernstein on Twitter and in the obituary section of the Washington Post daily.

Wilma Consul: When death comes to us, we the living carry the blessed duty of remembering the departed through some kind of remembrances; a eulogy, a memorial, a simple gathering, or in some cases a published obituary. Maureen O’Donnell'Donnell writes obituaries for a living for the Chicago Sun Times. She's so good at this craft that she's won three times at the Grimmy awards like the Grammy of obits. She's with us now. Hello Maureen. Welcome to Take On Today here at AARP.

Maureen O’Donnell: Thank you so much for having me.

Wilma Consul: Well, you've been doing obituaries for the Sun Times since 2009. What have you learned about the obituary writing?

Maureen O’Donnell: Well, I've learned that just when you think you've written about every possible profession or personality or bit of history, something new ends up on your desk and it's wonderful. I think the best obituaries transport you to a time and place, and they shed light on a moment in time, perhaps one that doesn't exist anymore.

Wilma Consul: Maureen, I can hear the excitement in your voice when you're talking about these stories. How do you uncover the details of someone's life?

Maureen O’Donnell: Well, it's a little bit of a detective process. You know, sometimes you see a death notice and there's a line in there that grabs you, and sometimes you hear about it from Facebook, sometimes you hear about it from Twitter, sometimes a reader calls you, and then your job is to start working on uncovering the truth. There was a death notice a while back for a gentleman named Jim Cole and it had a line in there about, I believe it had a line in there about surviving a bear attack. Well, I started looking into this and found out that this man who grew up in a very well-to-do Chicago suburb became enamored of bears as a young boy and he wound up moving out to the American West to photograph the bear, and he would often get very close to the bears. Someone who was a director of bear management at one of our national parks told me that Jim was cautious sometimes to stay back.

Well, he wound up getting attacked by some grizzly bears and according to the national park service, he is the only known survivor of not one, but two grizzly bear attacks in North America. Jim did lose an eye unfortunately, and had to have his face rebuilt. That did not stop him from continuing his love affair with the grizzly bear. He continued to photograph them, he would sing songs about them at a little cafe, I think in Montana or Wyoming. And this journey of his to me was just so fascinating, that here's some suburban kid who wound up carving out a life about something he loved. Oh, and by the way, he died of natural causes in his own bed.

Wilma Consul: Some have referred to obituary writers as, sadly, the Grim Reaper's writing team. That it's all about just death and doom. But what is it really about Maureen, for you?

Maureen O’Donnell: You know, I feel like often obituaries there about the arc of a life. Generally obituary writers are writing about people who've made a difference or made a quiet difference, and they've generally lived a long life, a meaningful life, and had an impact, and that's uplifting. On August 7th, a writer named Phillip Kennecott wrote a column in the Washington Post, and the headline was, "Obituaries are the only redemptive news anymore." And it talked about how amidst all of the news that's going on in our world; hurricanes, tornadoes, mass shootings, political fighting, an obituary can be redemptive and uplifting and tell you about people who have had a good impact on the world, people who stayed true to their moral center. Or perhaps they didn't, and that's a lesson too.

Wilma Consul: Now, Maureen, one of the quiet heroines that you've written about is Phyllis Larson, the turkey talk line expert. You won a Grimmy award for that, right?

Maureen O’Donnell: Yeah.

Wilma Consul: So tell me a little bit about that. Why do you think that it won?

Maureen O’Donnell: Well, I think the writing was good.

Wilma Consul: Of course.

Maureen O’Donnell: And I think, she again, was one of those little known heroines. So Butterball Turkey has a hotline set up that takes calls from worried hostesses and hosts who maybe have never dealt with trying to thaw out a 22-pound hunk a bird before everyone who's important in their life comes over for dinner. And it can be a very emotionally explosive day. And here's what I wrote about Phyllis Larson, who was a trained home economist and a terrific cook; "As an advisor on Butterball's turkey talk line, Phyllis Larson could help you choose, thaw, grind, stuff, marinade, inject, roast, grill, smoke, deep-fry or carve a turkey, and tell you what to do with the leftovers.

Wilma Consul: So this Grimmy award, right? It's given by the society of professional obituary writers, and you served as president of that. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Grimmy awards? I know that you guys will be having your annual gathering and this year will be in Washington D.C. Tell us a little bit more about this.

Maureen O’Donnell: The Grimmy awards are awards for the best obituary writing, and it's a terrific, terrific competition because everybody cheers each other on. We're all kind of disciples of obituaries and we give Grimmys for short obituaries, long obituaries, which are over 800 words, best obituary of an ordinary Joe or Jane. We have obituary writer of the year and we have lifetime achievement in obituary writing.

Wilma Consul: After writing these obituaries all these years, have you changed any perspective in life?

Maureen O’Donnell: Most definitely. I try not to put off till tomorrow what I can do today. I think we all are in agreement that saying tomorrow is promised to no one.

Wilma Consul: Thank you so much for joining us, Maureen. It's been such a pleasure.

So Bob and Mike, what did you think of Maureen O’Donnell'Donnell?

Bob Edwards: Fascinating career she's had, and some fascinating people that she's not known, but known after the fact and memorialized them.

Wilma Consul: Well, I loved talking to her because she had so much energy and excitement for what she does, right? And that in itself is a great tribute to the people who've left.

Mike Ellison: She is amazingly and surprisingly upbeat for someone who has to write about death so frequently.

Wilma Consul: I see her as someone who just celebrates life.

Mike Ellison: Exactly.

Bob Edwards: That's what it's about. You're remembering people and remembering the best about them.

Wilma Consul: Yeah.

Mike Ellison: Speaking with her, and in that interview, covering the subject, did it make you think about your own obituary someday?

Wilma Consul: Well, it has to have something that she loved to dance because I had written something about my father once, about his death, and I said that if I were to go, I would love people to celebrate with dance. So something with dance because that's really what's in it my heart.

Mike Ellison: That's what you would want in your obit, something about dance.

Wilma Consul: Yeah.

Mike Ellison: Have you given any thought to something like that, Bob?

Bob Edwards: Oh yeah. Area man, 72. That's my obituary.

Mike Ellison: So in a way the obituary is a permanent tool, collecting the memories of a lifetime and imparting those stories to others, to the world. To document the things you're proud of, things people are proud of you for, your best life lived, to keep dignity in death, through a life well remembered.

Bob Edwards: That sounds right.

Mike Ellison: And we know that human nature tells us over and over that this path of leaving a legacy is the one we aspire to. It's what we strive for, leaving good memories in place of ourselves. If not, the consequences may or may not be hellish, but they will certainly be documented in the obituary section in local papers for everyday misdemeanors, and in the national coverage for high crimes or maybe worst of all, simply forgotten.

Bob Edwards: I think the last observation rings truest. We all want to be remembered.

Mike Ellison: Absolutely, Bob. The quote you opened the show with and the tagline from the Times begs a simple question; in memorandum, what do you leave behind? Family and friends will be named in the obit hopefully, but apart from our connections to humanity and work, maybe a headstone, jewelry, money if you're fortunate, a watch, a home, a building with your name on it if you're very fortunate. Beyond these things, this we know; you will leave memories behind when you part the earth. Presented here by an assortment of voices, we've amassed at some of our favorite obituaries we hope do these memories justice.

V.O.: Burt Reynolds, his blend with Southern-fried machismo and wiseguy playfulness launched his worldwide celebrity in the 1970s, first as a free willing chat show guest, then as a nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine, and finally as a Hollywood action star, died September 6th. He was 82. Offscreen, the mustachioed actor developed a reputation as a hard-drinking playboy whose charm alternated with a volcanic hair-trigger temper. He made atrocious career decisions, propelled in part by a drug addiction and dramatic financial reversals. Critical plaudits and peer recognition appeared wildly beyond his grasp, when in the twilight of his professional life, he summoned a precisely calibrated performance in Boogie Nights as a 1970s movie pornographer with delusions of artistry. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights earned Mr. Reynolds an Academy Award nomination for best-supporting actor. He lost her Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, but the attention seemed, if nothing else, a testament to Mr. Reynold's resilience. In a career spanning five decades and more than 100 movie and television roles, Mr. Reynolds said he mostly chose projects that seemed fun at the time.

As an advisor on Butterball's turkey talk line, Phyllis Larson could help you choose, thaw, brine, stuff, marinate, inject roast, grill, smoke, deep fry, or carve a turkey, and then tell you what to do with the leftovers. She was a terrific cook and trained home economist, but perhaps her biggest skill was in assuring frazzled callers their guests were going to be happy and the holidays would be fine. Mrs. Larson worked for 15 years on the hotline, 1800-288-8372, which handles more than 100,000 questions from early November to Christmas eve at Butterball's Napperville headquarters. In that time she collected some good stories. One caller told her "I followed the directions, but the turkey is blue." Turned out they left the blue plastic seal on the bird. "They didn't take the wrapping off and cook the turkey and it came out blue." Said Mrs. Larson's son Eric. Mrs. Larson, 90, who taught home economics for 20 years at Glen Ellen's Glencrest middle school, died in her sleep at her home in Carolstream on November 18th.

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9:00 AM in his three-room apartment on Cochran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife Hettie made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kowalchec, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington national cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. "Polly, could you please be here by 11 o'clock this morning?" Kowalchec asked, "I guess you know what it's for." Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Clifton Pollard wasn't at the funeral. He was over behind the hill digging graves for $3 and 1 cent an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn't know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards. "They'll be used." He said, "We just don't know when. I tried to go over to see the grave," he said, "But it was so crowded a soldier told me I couldn't get through, so I just stayed here and worked, sir. But I'll get over there later a little bit. Just sort of look around and see how it is. You know, like I told you, it's an honor."

Bob Edwards: We hope you've truly enjoyed our show today, focused on something that often stirs adverse reactions because it reminds people of death. Breaking news; we're all going to do it, and obituaries are about a condensed and purposeful celebration of life. And that's our take on obituaries and how they truly serve to document and celebrate life. For more visit AARP.org/podcast, become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

This episode was originally published on September 4, 2019.

“God is our assignment editor,” says Washington Post obituary editor Adam Bernstein, “and we’re ready when you are.” Top obit writers talk about this unique form of journalism and how they meet the demands of their jobs with grace, insight and sometimes humor.

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