Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Obituary writing is an all-important corner of the news game. We are talking “first draft of history” and all that.

A key practitioner, Bruce Weber of The New York Times, is leaving the beat following eight years and 1,000 salutes to the dear departed. With considerable charm, he recently described his odd life in news and ink.

His subjects were “famous, infamous, or as obscure as the rest of us except for one instance of memorable distinction,” the latter including a stupid airline hijacker,  some guy who shot a ballplayer, a pederast, a con artist, or an embezzler, all thrown next to honored humanitarians, statesmen, and scientists seeking to cure AIDS or cancer.  (Unfortunately, these days such “mainstream media” routinely ignore the deaths of many worthy religious leaders.)

With unanticipated deaths, pieces must be knocked out in an hour or two. But at the Times and elsewhere, important obits are planned in advance. “You can’t write the comprehensive life story of a president or a pope or a movie star in an hour or even a day,” he explains. Indeed. Five months out of college, the Religion Guy compiled a two-page obit for Delaware’s Wilmington Morning News hours after JFK died, thanks mostly to canned AP and UPI copy and our "morgue" files.  

Most periodicals will (or should) have well-prepared sendoffs for religion’s big three -- The Rev. Billy Graham, now 97 and the prime U.S. clergyman of his era; the Dalai Lama, 81, and Pope Francis, 79. With such overarching personalities the temptation is to bigfoot the task, handing it to a veteran generalist instead of the staff religion specialist.

The bottom line: The result can emphasize the politics and downplay the religion.

But the religion-news professional is a better bet due to perspective and sources. With a sudden death (and many other breaking stories) the beat specialist’s list of home and cell phone numbers and e-mails is crucial.

With that in mind, The Guy pauses to thank  three stars who could provide a quick, perceptive quote on most anything: Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Jesuit priest Thomas Reese, omnipresent when journalists write about Catholics; and of course the one and only University of Chicago church historian Martin Marty. All three are at an age when their own advance obits should be in the bank.

One essential skill is up-summing the subject’s significance in a telling phrase. The Times, which often has an odd habit of burying the lede, correctly caught Jesuit priest turned political rabble-rouser John McLaughlin in its recent headline: “TV Host Who Made Combat of Punditry.” But it wasn’t until paragraph four that Elizabeth Jensen said he “helped reinvent the political talk-show format by injecting unabashed partisanship and a dash of entertainment.” Longtime liberal panelist Eleanor Clift made the key idea her second sentence: “He was the first to recognize the value of combative political talk on television.”

Some obit writing involves heavy interpretation and even some literary artistry, as with each week’s top obituary by anonymous authors that always graces the last page of The Economist. One highly readable master is Mark Steyn, whose 2006 anthology “Passing Parade” collected 51 examples. He got into this as a columnist for Canada’s National Post seeking “a welcome break from the grind of war and politics,” and subsequently wrote the “Post Mortem” column for The Atlantic.

An acerbic conservative, Steyn’s assessment of obits for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham lampooned journalists’ self-absorption and liberal elitism. He was similarly bemused when The New York Times rushed Pope John Paul II’s obit onto the Web complete with an editor’s comment: “NEED SOME QUOTE FROM SUPPORTER”!

Wait, there's more. He observed that The Guardian was perplexed that a pontiff was “doctrinaire about his doctrine, dogmatic about his dogma,” while the Washington Post nearly implied that the pope opposed “abortion and gay marriage off the top of his head, principally to irk ‘liberal Catholics.’ "

Be careful out there: Nothing lasts longer than the anger caused by errors and cheap shots written into obituaries.

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