Great Obituaries Will Save Newspapers

March 8, 2018

By Mark Behan
President, Behan Communications Inc.

I love a good obit. Always have.

As a long-ago journalist, I believed that great obituaries were one of the true measures of a great newspaper. At lesser newspapers, obituary desks were a training ground for the most inexperienced journalists or penal colony for hacks. But great newspapers always have seen the obituary desk as the place where good journalism and great human interest intersect to produce some of the most compelling reading. Obituaries aren’t death notices; they are life stories, inspiring and amazing. A good one makes a reader say: I wish I’d known her.

When I ran a daily newspaper, prominent people sent me the obituary they hoped we’d publish upon their death. We had always published substantial stories about the lives of prominent people and newsmakers, and while that was perfectly appropriate, it seemed an oddly exclusive way to handle the most democratic of all human experiences. We introduced a practice of running feature-style obituaries of people who had led more ordinary, quieter, but no less important lives. A good journalist knows there are no boring lives. The trick is to bring to life the most interesting parts. Each day we’d pick a few names out of the death notices, contact the families, and with their help, write the life stories of their loved ones. The families loved those stories. Readers did, too.

The New York Times long ago set the gold standard for fascinating obituaries. The Wall Street Journal’s “Appreciations” are journalistic gifts of the same high order.

The Times’ tradition is captured in “Obit,” Vanessa Gould’s terrific documentary about the newspaper’s obituary desk — it’s “necrology team.” It’s a look at how The Times decides which lives merit special notice at their end. Times reporters carefully assemble the story of an entire life in a few hours, mining the newspaper’s legendary “morgue,” seeking to verify the important details, gently interviewing family and colleagues, and striving to put one life, with all of its triumphs and trials, in its proper historical and social context.

Now, The Times is taking another giant step. It has reviewed its files since 1851, found that the majority of obituaries were of white man, and decided, at long last, to publish the obituaries of remarkable women who were overlooked.

It’s a brilliant initiative, and it comes at a time when The Times and the Journal are among an ever-smaller group of newspapers that choose to (or can afford to) uphold the tradition of fine obituaries. Many have dispatched obits to the paid, put-it-on-record and forget it department.

Newspapers win the affection of their readers when they publish the important things that seem unimportant — the stuff readers cut out and save: the bowling and bridge scores, honor rolls, promotions, weddings, births and deaths. Carefully researched, gracefully written and respectfully presented, obituaries are the most authentic expression of a newspaper’s connection to its readers, its respect for their lives. Be wrong in the news columns, be misguided on the editorial page, but get the obits right and you’ll probably be OK. Who can hate a newspaper that gave grandpa the good sendoff he deserved?

Let’s hope The Times’ commitment of resources will encourage other publishers and editors to rediscover, even in these days of ferocious commercial pressures, why great life stories are still worth reporting, even if they are decades late.

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