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.”