Writing an obituary is, simultaneously, among the easiest and the hardest assignments any reporter receives.
Telling the story of a life involves the basic who-what-where-when-and-how that most journalists know is required for news stories. And writing obituaries is a form of news reporting. That makes writing obits a pretty straightforward assignment for experienced reporters like those at The Coastal Star.
What makes it especially interesting is the opportunity to explore a life from start to finish and hopefully, find threads of experience that bring the reader some insight into the life and personality of the deceased.
Because obituaries are often kept as mementoes to pass along to future generations, we seek out family members to talk with about the life story we are telling. They are our primary source.
We then try to find co-workers and friends who will supplement the family story with remembrances that may have been outside the scope of the family. These are our secondary sources.
When a question or conflict arises between accounts, we defer to the family.
On occasion, even the family members don’t remember the individual the same way, and we need to find ways to deal with those sensitive issues.
At least once we have decided to not publish an obituary because of a family dispute. And on a couple of occasions, the family asked us not to write about their loved one, even when friends and colleagues begged us to write a tribute.
So, as you can see, writing obits can be tricky.
This past month we published an obituary containing information about an individual’s past that some members of the community found too sensitive, and thought we ought not to have published.
We are sorry the deceased’s neighbors were not comfortable with our writing about this person’s past drug use. But his widow had no qualms in sharing this information. She was proud of how he’d turned his life around. She was our primary source.
Our staff comes from all walks of life. A handful have stumbled as they’ve made their way along life’s path.
Those who have fallen and gotten back up are proud of their recovery — as they should be. It takes guts to look addiction in the face and wrestle it to the ground. It takes courage to start a new life.
If the life story of one man can show by example a way out of a bad situation for just one reader, then isn’t that a gift that transcends the grave?
I think it is.
Mary Kate Leming,