Writing up the dead

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Posted by Charles


Here’s an extract from an article in the New York Times describing the job of its obituary writers. It is likely to resonate with funeral celebrants.


Margalit Fox, a Times obituary writer for eight years, observed: “In obits, you are dealing with something new every day and a field you often don’t know. More than in many other genres, you are trespassing on somebody else’s turf. A banker, a modern dancer, an underwater cartographer — one has to be willing to trespass and be a quick enough study to pull it off.”

She calls it “terra incognita,” that unknown place she must visit every time an editor drops an assignment on her desk.

“The nature of obituary writing, it is a very intimate act,” she said. “At the beginning of a day you are meeting a stranger whose work you may not know and whom you may not have heard of when your editor comes over with a sheaf of clips from the morgue and an assignment.”

She added: “You really have to take in through inhalation every facet of this stranger’s life. By the time deadline rolls around and you have spent four or five hours in intense communion with this person, if you are lucky and the planets are in the right alignment, you can make an exhalation onto the page, which is not only swift and accurate but also has some of those resonant phrases.”

I had asked her about those phrases, the writerly touches that grace the best obituaries. Ms. Fox told of riding the subway home after handing in an obit on Madeleine P. Cosman, a scholar of medieval and Renaissance studies. An author and academic, Ms. Cosman could fly an airplane, play the piano and shoot a gun, and was a board member of the California Rifle and Pistol Association.

She was also, Ms. Fox thought, “truly a fringe right-wing ideologue.” Yet that thought was missing from the obituary until, on the subway ride home, inspiration struck and Ms. Fox called the office with a new ending.

The article now concluded, after a listing of the survivors, “Ms. Cosman also leaves behind a vast library of illuminated manuscripts and a large collection of handguns.”


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