Arts, Culture & Media

What writing obituaries taught them about life

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Haines, AK, in December

Credit:

Heather Lende

Heather Lende and Harry de Quetteville both tell the stories of the recently departed. As obituary writers, their work captures both the grand and intimate details of a subject's life. In many ways the obituary can feel like a vestige of another time when newspapers were booming and Walter Cronkite was sponsored by Winston cigarettes. Yet the modern obituary provides a portrait of life, from the high profile to the ordinary. 

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The small-town obituary 

Heather Lende has been an obituary writer for nearly two decades at the Chilkat Valley News, a weekly paper in Haines, Alaska. She describes Haines, a remote community only accessible by boat or plane, as "a lot like a foreign country." In the small community, devoid of an undertaker or mortuary, rituals of death are a community affair.

"The reason I write obituaries really," she said, "is because everybody helps with those death rituals. Whether it's making casseroles, or playing the music, or typing up the funeral program. As a writer, I realized that I could do the obituaries." In those 20 years, she's written over 400 obituaries, yet unlike most writers, Lende says she knew each of them personally. 

The question she's most often asked — what makes a good life? — is something Lende thinks about a lot. 

"I think if I had to say one word, it really comes down to relationships. All of it. When we go, do we leave people behind who will miss us? ... if people weren't really sad when you left, it seemed like you've missed an opportunity in your life. And now I think about that a lot in how I live. I think am I generous, am I kind, am I grateful? Those are the things that make a good life."

She says she's a better person for her work, which seeks to find the extraordinary in ordinary lives, in an age obsessed by celebrity and wealth

"I want people to know I think it's successful to be a schoolteacher, or a janitor, or a nurse, or a fisherman," she told Minnesota Public Radio in May. "Those are the people we depend on, those are the people who make a community and that saves us as a society," 

You can read more of her work in Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer

The obituary of record 

"It's never depressing, far from it! It's fascinating and hugely uplifting," says Harry de Quetteville. He's served as the obituaries editor for The Telegraph, a paper famous for, as he puts it, "obits of eccentric figures."

Decades ago in British newspapers, obituaries writers often used a code to describe the behavior of their subjects.

"You would say someone was a bon vivant if they were an alcoholic drunk, you would say they enjoyed the company of women if they were basically assaulting everyone they saw ... you might say someone was a confirmed bachelor if they were gay, and those days have rather passed now." 

Quetteville says the job of the modern obituary writer is not to glorify a life, but to tell it with anecdotes that lets the reader draw an accurate picture of the person. He described one of the departed as “a moderately successful Chelsea pimp” who was also "a failed theatrical impresario, a crack-smoking serial adulterer and a writer of autobiographical novels.” You can find some of his work in Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer — an edited collection of obituaries.

Despite his years on the job, Quetteville acknowledges he's not sure of one thing: What he'd like his own obituary to say.

Here are a few of our favorite obituaries over the past year:

Stop your messin' around: What Rico Rodriguez meant to ska

The neighborhood that taught Yogi Berra to take those forks in the road

Going silent: A nurse who brought salvation, unrecognized for decades

Readers, is there someone who died last year who left an enduring mark on your life? Let us know in the comments section