Nobody likes to talk about it, but we’re all going to die. Journalists and editors know this, and are especially aware of it in the case of famous or important people. A type of guessing game is played in the obituary departments of major media outlets. If you’re an old or ailing celebrity, your name is probably on their list.
It’s a secret most would like to keep burled, but there is a sector of media devoted to the art of obituaries. Cynics may laugh with black humour, but this quiet effort is about making sure a tribute is thorough and accurate.
“We have a file of obituaries,” says Joe Hall, deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, which has had an obit of the Queen Mother ready for over 30 years. “Over 150 obituaries are prepared in advance. We would update the”III from time to time. Usually they are prepared for people of advanced years or who have been ailing recently.”
Scott White, editor-in-chief of news wire service The Canadian Press (CP), says he has about 30 obituaries ready, and adds there was once a large department dedicated to their writing. “CP used to have an elaborate system dedicated to obits. This was back when there were no computers, and everything was kept in file cabinets.”
For print, it’s a matter of research, but television has the added task of finding visuals.
“It’s about doing the job right,” says Dennis MacIntosh, vice-president of CTV News. “I don’t think our viewers care about how we prepare for [deaths]; they care about the quality of our reporting.”
But leave it to the Internet to be the most tasteless forum for the nearly departed. “We put the FUN in funeral,” advertises one macabre site. There are five major death pools giving prizes to the most accurate list. Thank goodness none of them have video broadcasts … yet.
However, the best obituaries are found at The New York Times. As one of the biggest newspapers in the world, it’s no surprise that the Times has five full-time writers dedicated to the craft, and contracts other staff and freelance writers for the preparation of obituaries ranging from 500 to 10,000 words.
“As a really rough estimate, we have about 1,000 to 1,500 obituaries on file,” says Chuck Strum, obituaries editor at the Times.
Does Strum ever feel that he is participating in a gloomy exercise?
“No, this is about history,” he concludes. “It’s a great, great opportunity to synthesise lots of information about a person’s participation in interesting, transcendental or historical events. That’s what’s nice about a real juicy obituary; you get to look at a career, a lifetime, an era or an epoch. You give it a beginning, middle and an end which helps the reader see where they stand in relationship to those events or those people.”