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A ghoulish job? Maybe, but obit writer's true task is to acknowledge a life

The week before I started the job, I sat at the kitchen table with my grandpa. I explained what I'd be doing, the best I could. Truthfully, I wasn't totally sure.

Dead people. Obituaries.

He had just the gift for me! He went to the basement and brought back a rusty old biscuit tin. I flipped it open, a mushroom of must and news clips swelling out.

A box of death.

For years, he'd snipped obits from his Lorain, Ohio, paper, the Morning Journal. There were a couple of interesting locals, but mostly celebrities like Dinah Shore and Burt Lancaster and Gene Autry and Gene Autry's sidekick. People he spent his life watching.

Buried deep, there was a prayer card for Padre Pio, a saint believed to have cured the sick.

As we sat together reading of heart attacks and cancer and stroke, I wondered — what was the fascination with death? And how could I spend my days in it?

Stereotype, however flawed, says that obit writers are strange and work in dark caves. They are crusty, cranky, somehow unfulfilled.

In the movie Closer, Jude Law is bespectacled, bedraggled and calls his obit job the "Siberia of journalism." Famed writer Gay Talese described New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman as a grim reaper, a man of dour face who wore bow ties, horn-rimmed glasses and rubber-soled shoes. He had glaucoma.

I am 25. I have platinum hair and wear stilettos. I like hip-hop music and reality TV. My mouse pad has a photo of Dolly Parton, and my favorite pen ends with a wild poof of hot-pink feathers.

Contact lenses, yes. Glaucoma, no.

Despite my preconceptions, I found myself applying for the death beat in 2007. The St. Petersburg Times was creating a bold new thing. Six days a week, we'd feature someone local who had died. Not necessarily a famous person. Maybe a woman with eight cats. Maybe a criminal or a child. Maybe a dog. They would be pretty. Messy. Real.

I wanted the exposure for my career. And as a storyteller, I wanted the material, morose or no.

When I got the job, my friends at work bought a cake shaped like a tombstone. That day, I wore a psychedelic green dress, fake fingernails, hair in a childlike pony. I held the cake and hammed for a photo, but inside, I was freaked. Could I do this? Was I Jude Law?

Life as I knew it was now death.

• • •

They stared back at me.

Men with white hair, handsome young guys in ties, women with lipstick ever just so. Tiny black and white photos on the obit page, one right after the next.

Pick me. Pick me.

I picked whoever looked interesting. There was no great method, really. Who did I want to know more about?

Some family members were overjoyed at the thought of a story and provided rich detail. Some got flustered, clammed up, answered in cliches. Shirt off his back. Never met a stranger.

I thought of Jim Sheeler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning obit writer I called for advice before starting the job. When all else fails, he told me, ask questions. Just. Keep. Asking.

What was on his iPod? In the fridge? What time did he wake up? Did he have a catch phrase? What kind of beer did he like? How long was that trout he caught?

It worked. A real person emerged. Someone far from the 12-line paid notice who belonged to the Rotary and the Methodist church and wanted charity checks in lieu of flowers.

There was the mobster who walked his daughter's dog. The pizzamaker who played trombone to Madonna records. The happy man who masqueraded as a sad clown.

I learned that death is complicated for the ones left behind. In the hustle of funeral planning, people don't always get to talk out how they're feeling. They're on autopilot, go, go, go.

Once, I interviewed a man as he drove a long way to his ex's funeral. I felt awkward, like I was intruding during his private moment. But the drive had given him time to think about the loose ends, the things he never said, the messy way their story ended.

So he talked and I shut up. And when he finished, I'll never forget what he said.

"Thanks for listening."

• • •

I cranked them out, diving deep into people's grief, cutting bait, then doing it again the next day.

Friends asked what it was like. It wasn't so bad, I'd say. It was a pleasure to illuminate people who wouldn't otherwise rate coverage. This wasn't a lie.

I cried once. That week, my story subjects all reminded me of my family. And go figure, I finished the week by writing about a young blond woman who loved fashion and died in a car crash.

I built a wall, but there were obvious cracks.

My mother would mention an ache or a pain and I would overreact. Go to the doctor! I just wrote about someone whose mom had the same pain and now she's dead! You probably have Suddendeathitis! Holy grits, be proactive, would you?!

Instead of pondering songs I might like at my wedding, my brain wandered to great funeral tracks. If I died, I thought, my obit would say I was an obit writer. Weird.

Friends said I wore a lot of black.

I'd stay late at work reading my stories over and over again, obsessively scanning for errors. A correction is a nightmare for any journalist, but try screwing up someone's swan song, their piece de resistance, their ultimate scrapbook page!

I didn't get everything right, and a handful of people hated the stories. One woman thought it was flippant to write of her husband's lunch habits when he had accomplished so much professionally. Maybe she had a point.

Most readers loved them. I once got a message from an anonymous woman with a creaky, sassy voice. She thought I might write a good article about her. So right before she died, she said, she planned to give me a heads up.

E-mails flooded in.

You make the people so real . . . It's easy to read obituaries and kind of blow them off as more old people dying. Keep the stories going.

It touches me each day. There is nothing sadder than not having anyone commemorate your life. We're here, we die and then . . .

I started to get it.

Obituaries are little firecrackers of humanity. It's all right there — birth, childhood, career, family. The joys, the utter missteps, the humor and the heartbreak. The terrifying uncertainty of when it might all end.

In a year and a half, I've written well over 300 obituaries. The notes still fill my hard drive like ghosts. When I scroll through folders, the photos stare back.

You picked me.

They don't all give me warm fuzzies, but they remind me of things. That I can't judge anyone — a sweet old lady might have a rap sheet, and a lying cheater might love his family painfully.

That people will answer questions, if I have courage to ask. That everyone deserves common courtesy, even when my wick is dimming and it's hard to muster a smile.

That no matter what kind of day I'm having, at least I still have a day to have.

It's time to move on. I've taken a job writing about the living. Andrew Meacham, a writer passionate about the obit craft, will soon take over this very important role. It will live on.

• • •

That day at the table, Grandpa and I unfolded the dusty pages.

Jerry Orbach. Eva Gabor. Artie Shaw. The grandson of Will Rogers, who died alone above a bar in a dilapidated Lorain boardinghouse.

Grandpa said I could impress my fellow journalists by showing them one clipping per day, since he had collected so many. I laughed and said it was a good idea.

He dipped his fingers and landed on an obituary about his friend from the service, a pilot who flew airplanes so wild one skimmed the water. He told the story, hands swooping like wings toward the mahogany ocean of the kitchen table.

He peered over his glasses at the clip, where I imagine he saw a bit of himself.

"I think I'll keep this one," he said.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

A ghoulish job? Maybe, but obit writer's true task is to acknowledge a life 02/20/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 22, 2009 2:11am]

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