One of my first writing jobs was the obituary-story beat at the York Daily Record. I loved writing stories about people who had passed away, but I also became fascinated with the art of writing about death – and so I wrote about writing about death.
Originally published July 29, 2003, in the York Daily Record.
By Joan Concilio, Daily Record staff
Seattle-based freelance writer Jade Walker has had at least a thousand brushes with death.
Walker had been the overnight editor/producer for The New York Times on the Web for three years. She produced the obituary section of The Times’ site each night until she left the paper in April. After Sept. 11, 2001, she also worked on the massive Portraits of Grief section, which profiled more than 1,000 of those killed in the terrorist attacks.
“Many of the reporters who wrote those briefs went into therapy,” Walker said. “But I reveled in being able to tell their stories to the world.”
In June, Walker launched a site where she could tell even more stories of the deceased. Her site, The Blog of Death at www.blogofdeath.com, is one of many obituary sites springing up online to fill a growing interest among Internet readers.
Some sites, like Walker’s, publish obituaries for free, at the discretion of their editors. Others charge for placement of obituary information, usually written by family members of the deceased or the funeral homes handling arrangements.
One site that charges for placement is Legacy.com, based in Evanston, Ill. Legacy is used by the York Daily Record and The York Dispatch/Sunday News and by more than 100 other newspapers to archive paid obituary notices.
According to its Web site, www.legacy.com, Legacy posts obituaries and guest books for one out of every three people who die in the United States each day. It was founded in 1998 and its posted mission is “to use new media technology in expanding ways to cele brate people’s lives.”
Visitors to Legacy.com can search by newspaper, by date or by last name of the deceased to find an obituary notice. Obituary notices also have guestbooks where visitors can leave comments for the family and friends of the deceased.
Walker said her site operates differently from paid services such as Legacy and the Internet Obituary Network at www.obits.com [no longer active], another site that charges for obituary placement.
“The paid sites offer themselves as a notification service,” Walker said. “The Blog of Death is a site that goes one step beyond simple notification. With each obit I write, I search the Internet for interesting facts and Web sites about my subject. Then I try to enlighten my readers with these life stories.”
Walker said the obituaries she writes often three or more each day serve as mini-biographies and celebrations of life. “Some people think the obituaries section is morbid,” she said. “But in truth, only one line of an obit deals with death. The rest of the article focuses on the amazing lives people lead.”
She said her standards for choosing who to profile are simple. “Whenever I read about a person’s death, I ask myself, ‘Did they live with passion? Did they accomplish great things? Did they touch other people? Did they contribute something to the world that was previously missing?'”
Walker said such lives are always interesting to hear about, even if readers didn’t know the subject personally.
“This, I believe, is why a reader will hear about a famous person’s death, and immediately hop online to do a quick search and find out more,” Walker said.
Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists and the www.obitpage.com website [no longer active], said almost everyone reads obituary stories. “They might not admit it, but they do,” she said.
In small or mid-sized towns, Gilbert said, people read the obituaries in their daily paper because they might know someone who has died. When people move, they follow their hometown paper’s obituaries to keep up with the news. And with most newspapers posting obituaries online, it’s even easier to find and read those stories. Gilbert, who lives in Dallas, Texas, reads obituaries from across the country and the world that way.
She posts the best of the obituaries she finds on the obitpage.com site, which was founded in 1999 to help other obituary writers improve their craft.
“It’s the ultimate short story,” she said. “These are very well-known people, or the writing of the stories is excellent. . . Usual ly these are from some of the best obituary writers in the world.”
One of several quotes on death appearing on Walker’s Web site seems to sum up the unique draw of obituary stories: “There is no better goal than this one: to know as you lie on your deathbed that you lived your true life, and you did whatever made you happy.” That quote, by motivational author Steve Chandler, highlights Walker’s and Gilbert’s purpose in maintaining obituary Web sites to commemorate, in a literary form, not death but the extraordinary moments in a person’s life.