Q&A with St. Petersburg Times Epilogue writers
Everyday the St. Petersburg Times features an Epilogue, a profile of a bay area resident who died. The Epilogues are rich in detail, with lively stories and anecdotes about regular folks -- most often names you haven't seen in Times headlines before.
Stephanie Hayes, on right, writes the Epilogues daily and Andrew Meacham, writes one a week for the Times. They answer some frequently asked questions here. We invite you to submit your questions for them, and they will respond below.
How do you choose your subjects?
Hayes: Our goal here is to spotlight everyday people with interesting lives. That doesn't mean famous, and it doesn't mean perfect. I search the paid funeral notices every day looking for something that might spark my interest. It could be a long list of accomplishments, or it could be something simple as, "he went to the same restaurant each day for 40 years." Once, I spotted a photo that looked like Elvis on a small obit, and after calling the family, discovered the gentleman was an Elvis impersonator. We aim for geographic, ethnic, age and racial diversity. Epilogues don't have to stem from funeral notices. Some obits grow out of news tips from people in the community.
Meacham: There is no set formula. Sometimes it’s the unusual -- clearly, a person who captured venomous snakes in faraway places for a living would be hard to pass up.
Do families' requests have a big influence or is it the 'importance' of a person?
Hayes: I've never really encountered an uninteresting human being. As long as family members are willing to be open and honest, the details flow with the questioning. If someone asks me to consider an Epilogue for their loved one, I try to hear them out. It doesn't mean certain factors won't make it impossible, but we'll consider it. As for the "importance," it's my job to glean those details by asking the right questions.
Meacham: What sets the so-called "common man" obituary apart is its celebration of ordinary lives. As Jim Nicholson, who is credited with founding this obit form in the Philadelphia Daily News, put it, it’s often about "lives well lived." "Importance," or lack thereof, is just an attribute. It may count heavily for news value, as when a prominent person dies, but the unimportant also have stories worth telling.
Must the person have lived in the bay area recently?
Hayes: No. We know that often, when people are dying, they relocate to be closer to family members. That doesn't lessen the fact that they lived and contributed to the community for years before their death. At the same time, though, we might turn down a story about someone who has lived their entire life somewhere else and spent only a year here. It has to do with relevance to the community.
How tough is it to interview grieving family members?
Hayes: Most of the time, it's pleasantly easy. Memories of loved ones are fresh in their minds, and it can be therapeutic to share. I've had people tell me at the end of an interview, "thanks for listening." If someone gets emotional, I'll usually let them have a second, then ask a more factual question - "when did he move to Tampa?" - to get back on track and help them gather their thoughts. I often spend an hour interviewing a single person, if they're talkative.
Meacham: Everyone reacts to grief a little differently. Some people don’t want to talk about it at all. For others, participating is a way of honoring the person. If they don’t want to talk or if they only want to reveal a threadbare portrait of the person, we respect those decisions and move on to someone else.
Are there certain details that you don't publish?
Hayes: Since Epilogues are generally short, it's important that they have focus. That might mean sacrificing detail. I usually have about 10 typed pages of notes at the end of a day of reporting, and from that, I whittle down the information. A person may have had a great family life, but we might focus on their career, or vice versa. Or we might find an ongoing theme in their life and use that to structure the story - i.e., their sense of humor, their intelligence, their romantic tale.
Are people ever reluctant to include their relative's cause of death? Would you keep that private at family's request?
Hayes: Some people are private about medical stuff, and others put it all out there.
We try to be sensitive to privacy, but we always aim to include the cause of death. It's an important detail that helps readers relate. In many cases, medical battles reveal something about a person's character. Other times, like when the person is over 100, it's not so important to specifically say, "heart failure" or "cancer." There's a certain amount of artistic alluding we do when talking about illness so that it doesn't read like a medical journal.
Is it true some obits are pre-written? Can you tell me any names of those, local or national figures?
Hayes: Yep. Why do you think entire life stories appear online mere minutes after a celebrity dies? It's a matter of urgency and preparedness, not morbidity. Often times, our advanced obits and culled from old newspaper clips and quotes and records. For Epilogues, we polish them up with new anecdotes and current quotes and fresh writing. We have about 400 obits on file here at the Times, ranging from Fidel Castro to local city council types and business people.
How do you deal with writing about people who have things like criminal pasts or alcohol problems?
Hayes: There's a natural tendency to not speak ill of the dead, but if we don't report openly and honestly about all aspects of life, we are not doing our job. No one is perfect, and it's a constant challenge to get more realness into the obits. Just because people go to jail doesn't mean they are bad. It means they've gone through genuine life experiences that made them multi-dimensional. We do background checks on just about everyone we feature in Epilogue.
When I ask people about the sore spots, it's not to pass judgment or harp on the negative. We just want to paint a complete, accurate picture, good, bad and everything in between, and report it in context that's respectful. In the same vein, I want to hear bad habits along with the good. Did Dad leave his socks everywhere? Did he have a hot temper? Did he ever curse in church? These are the details that create a rich life story. And besides - who wants to read about perfect people? I'm certainly not perfect, and I don't know anyone who is.