Apply your journalistic skills to obits

February 26, 2015

By Kay Powell
Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution obit writer

The easiest way to write an obituary on deadline is to knock out a chronological resumé with a few quotes from the family thrown in.

Don’t do that.

Obituaries are written for the reader not the family. An obit is a news story, and the same journalistic skills apply. Good preparation leads to a good obit no matter who is the subject.

Develop sources, particularly among funeral homes and readers. They are rich sources of interesting people who make great obit subjects. They can provide family contact information to jump start a reporter’s research and interviews. When an obit subject is selected, do a quick archive and Internet search.

Prepare a list of interview questions. Get the basic information: Name, nickname, age, date and cause of death, city of residence, plans for a service, and an accurate list of survivors. Expand the questions to prompt responses that reveal the subject’s personality, that provide details to enliven the obit. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg said, “Always get the name of the dog, the chicken and the beer.”

Call the family and build credibility immediately. Introduce yourself. Tell them how sorry you were to learn about the death from the funeral home. Single out one thing about the dead person to show your interest in writing about them: “I found the fact that she climbed Stone Mountain every day for 30 years including 24 times on her 60th birthday so interesting. I want to let our readers know more about that.”

If the family says they can’t talk right now but will next week, explain that this is a daily story and you are on deadline. Tell them that you can understand they are grieving and respect that and will not be able to write the story if they are unable to talk with you today. It’s guaranteed that the family will find the time to talk with you right then.

Confirm accurate survivor information. If a child is a step-son or a half-sister, they must be identified as such. Accuracy in an obit is as essential as in any other news story. If readers don’t believe what is in an obit, how can they believe anything else published in the paper?

To move the interview along quickly, let the family member say what they have to say and get that out of the way. If you don’t, they will continually interrupt your interview to say what is fixed in their mind.

Phrase questions to elicit a more interesting answer. Don’t ask, “What were his hobbies?” Rather ask, “When he had time to himself, what would he do, that thing that was fun for him?”

The question you are afraid to ask is the question you must ask. The obit subject might have been in the news for something criminal or salacious. Mentioning that in the obit cannot be avoided. Give the family a chance to comment on this. The reporter’s job is to answer questions, not leave readers with questions in their minds.

Outside voices must be included. The family can give you names and contact information for friends and colleagues. These interviews can lead to little known or unknown information about the person. The obit should cover multiple dimensions of the person who has died. Write about how they lived, not just how they died.

Paint a picture for the reader. The quote “She was so little, her shorts met her socks” lets the reader visualize her. One sentence tells the reader a lot about a construction worker: “His Levis always had a crease down the center of the leg, and he polished his work boots.”

Fact check every single piece of information in the obit. More than one obit reporter has passed along a family myth as fact. If it can’t be confirmed, leave it out. If it must be included, put it in context.

Any obit can be an interesting read. Through good interviewing, a reporter finds the extraordinary in an ordinary person. You start out thinking you’re going to write about a man who prices groceries. It becomes instead the story of a man who raised prize-winning, show-quality skunks and airbrushed a picture of his favorite skunk on his motorcycle.

It’s easy to write yet another obit on a beloved coach, a beloved teacher, a beloved doctor, a beloved preacher. The reader scans the lead and the rest of the story is predictable. It’s up to the reporter to find what is unique about them. Turn out a different, interesting read every time. © Kay Powell 2015


Kay Powell, aka Doyenne of the Death Beat, is the retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution obits editor and former state news editor of the Valdosta (GA) Daily Times. She has written more than 2,000 obits involving more than 12,000 interviews.

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