LAMENTING THE DEMISE OF OBITUARIES

July 19, 2011

By Mike Pigott

When I was a reporter with Middle Tennessee’s former daily afternoon paper, the Nashville Banner, my first assignment was to assist chief obituary writer Tom Normand with writing about the lives of those who had died.

Obits were great reading, and I miss the days when everyday obituaries were turned out by journalists.

In those times, three people at the paper did little else than write about the dead all day, and everyone who died got an obituary free of charge to their family. Our policy at the Banner was to call the funeral home and a member of the family of each deceased person, and gather as much information as possible about their lives. The Tennessean did the same thing – yes, we even competed for obits.

We also were instructed to list the cause of death if it was something other than a suicide. This was not always easy – some people would say their uncle “just up and died,” or “died of old age.” But we did our best to get to the root cause of death.

(Obituaries should not be confused with death notices, which are normally placed with assistance from the funeral home at a cost to the family of the deceased. These items, which now appear under the misleading title of “obituaries,” often neglect to mention the person’s occupation and other interesting information about him or her.)

Normand was an unusual character, to say the least. He was obsessively neat, patting his obit lists into exact piles every few minutes, and making sure his desk was meticulously clean. He had a nearly flawless system, and I doubt many dead Middle Tennesseans escaped his attention. Most reporters welcomed the opportunity to write obits when first hired, but soon began looking for ways to move on to another beat – cops, courts, somewhere with some excitement and a chance to have a byline atop a story.

But not Tom Normand. He relished being an obituary writer and he turned down plum promotions, like one to Capitol Hill writer, to continue writing obits. I asked him why he resisted the offered promotions, and his answer from decades ago still sticks with me. To paraphrase his words:

“I like being the obituary writer because it is the only assignment in newspapers where you deal with everyday people,” he said. “Every other beat deals with politicians, or celebrities, or sports heroes or business executives. I spend my day mostly talking with real people about an everyday person who has died. And every one of them has a story.”

Today, it is rare for anyone other than celebrities get special obituaries written by local reporters. Everyone else must have a paid death notice, with the depth and quality being driven by the funds available to place it and by the ability of a member of the family to tell the dead person’s story. More often than not, the accounts are dull and tell just the basics about the funeral arrangements.

The New York Times still does an excellent job of providing in-depth obituaries, written by professional journalists, about several people each day. But the subjects of those obits are usually celebrities of some type.

In a day when newspapers are cutting editors, writers, beats and pages, I guess obits were a logical early victim. But as was the case with most of the everyday people we once immortalized in print, those obits about everyday folks are “sorely missed.”

 

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13 Responses to “LAMENTING THE DEMISE OF OBITUARIES”


  1. So what happened to Tom Normand?

  2. Anonymous Says:

    He was laid off by the paper and then sacked groceries at H.G. Hill for a while. He died a few years ago. Didn’t get the obit he deserved. His daughter Suzanne worked for The Tennessean for several years after that as a community news reporter.

    • George Zepp Says:

      Tom also worked for The Tennessean for a while after the Banner folded. Here’s the obit Tim Ghianni wrote for him in that paper:

      Senior Writer

      Longtime Nashville Banner obituary writer Thomas Jean “Tom” Normand, 65, is remembered as a master of his craft and as a fun-loving soul by former colleagues.

      Mr. Normand’s body was discovered Sunday at his West Nashville home by his only child, Suzanne Normand Blackwood, a staffer at The Tennessean.

      Arrangements are incomplete but are being handled by Harpeth Hills Funeral Home and Memory Garden, 9090 Highway 100.

      Former Nashville Banner Editor Eddie Jones said Tuesday that Mr. Normand “put his heart and soul into that special niche” of obituary writing.

      Jones said Mr. Normand “had some sort of natural kindness in him and, during the 10 years I worked with him, I got innumerable letters and telephone calls from families who had lost somebody and Tom had done the obit. They would say how much they appreciated Tom’s kindness.”

      When The Banner closed nine years ago, Mr. Normand came to The Tennessean for a time.

      Mary Hance, who learned to write obituaries under Mr. Normand’s tutelage in her early years at the Banner, remembered him as “a true professional with a knack for writing … interesting and descriptive obituaries.”

      “He took it very seriously and chose to be an obituary writer in an industry where, in many newspapers, obit writing was relegated to young, inexperienced reporters.”

      His life wasn’t just about death, though. It also was about calling the hogs.

      “He had another side, a fun-loving side,” said Hance, The Tennessean’s “Ms. Cheap.”

      “He was one of the people who helped shape the Swine Ball, the American Cancer Society fundraiser that spoofed the Swan Ball. His annual award-winning hog call – a long, drawn-out, very realistic rendition – was unequalled and always drew a huge crowd and much applause.

      “He also could, at the drop of a hat, recite Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis’ gospel song ‘Supper Time.’ ”

      Mr. Normand was born Dec. 29, 1941, in Marksville, La. Survivors include two sisters, Peggy Underwood of Houston and Leah Sadden of Hammond, La.; a brother, Owen Normand of Soquel, Calif.; four nieces; and a nephew.

      Copyright 2007 – Tennessean, The – All Rights Reverved

      Word count: 347

      • Mike Says:

        George: Thanks for posting. Tom got a better send-off than I remembered from a master in Ghianni.

  3. Carol Bradley Says:

    Mike,
    Nice column! I remember Tom’s practically spotless desk and his habit of keeping his turquoise colored (I think) rotary phone parked precisely at a far corner. At the first ring he would leap for the phone and drag it across the desk before picking it up. Straight out of The Front Page.
    Carol

  4. jim east Says:

    nice writing, mike-my friend … i remember those days well and really believe many newspapers could make substantial comebacks if they only would go back to basic journalism … among the most successful things i started at some of the papers i’ve edited were selecting at least one average person daily for a feature obits with hedshot (families invariably buy extra papers and laminate the obits for bookmarks in their bibles) … another was asking local people to write on any editorial subject they wanted for the op-ed; it was surprising what some of them came up with … people aren’t invested in papers anymore ’cause the basics aren’t covered … thanks for the vent …

  5. Keith Miles Says:

    Well done!

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Great job, Mike. I well remember when I started at the Tennessean in 1958. One of my jobs was calling survivors and getting more information on the deceased. I shall never forget one call I made. I asked the cause of death and was told that “he was electrocuted.” At the state pen, you know. Today an execution at the prison would be front page news, but not so in those days.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    When I was a first-year reporter at The Banner, the late, great city editor Brad Carlisle had me call the home of a guy with a common name — something like Tom Jones — to gather obit information from his family. A man answered the phone and I asked to speak to the widow of “Tom Jones.” He said, “you’re speaking to Tom Jones.” I stuttered and stammered and finally said, “I guess you feel like Mark Twain. The reports of your death are greatly exaggerated.” Brad thought that was pretty funny. I didn’t.

  8. jim east Says:

    i find it fascinating that several former associates of Tom write glowingly of him, yet sign themselves “anonymous” instead of using their actual names — seems the antithesis of what news people would want …

  9. mary hance Says:

    Mike. I love this piece!!!
    .. I am thinking about writing a piece advising people to write their own obits in advance – in hopes of making them interesting and what you would want.. I am just trying to think of a cheap angle so I could run it as a column..

  10. Tom Says:

    Mike–

    Couldn’t agree more. I tried to get as many obits as I could into NashPo/City Paper, and the ones I was able to do (usually of biz people) were among the most satisfying assignments I took on while there. Still, I knew we were leaving out many great lives.

    The Scene started doing an In Memoriam issue at the end of 2009 and did it again in late 2010. I did what I could to spur that concept. I think it has been very well done both years, and I hope it will continue.

    But for all that, it’s a long way from the dozen or so 3″-5″ obits I see in every issue of the Banner and Tennessean from the 1920s in the bound volumes I have collected. As you note, they regularly chronicled the lives of ordinary people.

    -Tom

  11. Becca Stinson Says:

    Really enjoyed this post and all the great comments – thanks, Mike.


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