Guest columnist Marietta Pritchard: There’s just a lot of life in the obits

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By MARIETTA PRITCHARD

Published: 01-11-2024 11:32 AM

Have I mentioned that I read the obituaries in the Gazette every morning before I start my day? Does this sound depressing? I don’t find it so. It somehow anchors things for me.

I can learn about people in my community and about how they or their families describe their lives. Mostly these are people I never knew, although sometimes there is a familiar name, sometimes even a friend. Mostly, reading these life stories is a way of getting in touch with a wide range of people without having to leave the house.

It’s true that I have a long-standing professional connection with this format. My first job at the Gazette in 1977 was as obituary writer, then described rather inflatedly as obituary editor. (I had no staff.) This was when obituaries were treated as news rather than as a contribution from family or friends.

They were much more formulaic than what appears these days. Just the facts — birth and death dates, education, occupation, survivors, memorial contributions. Later, if the editor deemed the person to be of significant interest, we might write a more personalized, nuanced feature article.

For me it was good training for the craft of journalism. You had to be accurate, careful, take nothing for granted. People took these accounts seriously and you were in deep trouble if you got the facts wrong: “Oh, John Smith. Now how do you spell that. OK, got it, S-m-y-t-h-e.” I once found a picture in our files to run with the obituary of someone we’ll call Frank Jones, age 99. Turned out to have been his son, still alive, same name.

Now that obituaries are written by family and friends, we learn more (and sometimes less) about the person who has died. Styles range from old-fashioned “just the facts” to the poetic and novelistic. Grandma loved her many cats and named them after baseball stars. Uncle Joe had a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. He loved to make pierogies and take us snowmobiling. Dad was not only a beloved professor of engineering but also an inventor. He could fix anything from refrigerators to broken hearts.

Obituaries at major newspapers are written by staff members who may devote their whole careers to this format. I’m looking at an amusing book from some years back, “The Dead Beat” by Marilyn Johnson. Johnson, the back cover tells us, had written obituaries for Princess Diana, Jacqueline Onassis and Marlon Brando, among others.

The book is a study of how these life stories get told. The tone is breezy in a newsroomy sort of way. She writes, “Obituaries have a pull, a natural gravity for those of us who’ve observed that life has a way of ending.”

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Obituaries have attracted the attention of other writers, too. The poet Billy Collins has a poem about them. Here are a few lines:

Here is where the final cards are shown,

the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds,

And all the survivors huddle at the end

under the roof of a paragraph

as if they had sidestepped the flame of death.

Yes, indeed. Dear reader, you and I have sidestepped that flame, too. So far.

Marietta Pritchard, a former Gazette writer and editor, lives in Amherst. She can be reached at mppritchard@comcast.net.