Another way to write an obit

As y’all may know, I recently had occasion to write my father’s obituary.

It wasn’t easy. Aside from my deep emotional investment in the task, there was the fact that I don’t think I’d ever written one before. I had, of course, edited thousands over the years — although not any more than I absolutely had to.

I may have been reluctant to admit this to my colleagues at the time, but at the very beginning of my newspaper career, when I was a copy editor in the mid-’70s, I used to do all I could to avoid handling obits. I’ve told you how things worked back in those days of technological transition. Next to each Harris 1100 editing machine — the copy desk shared four or five — there would be a basket filled with copy awaiting editing. Each item consisted of hard copy typed on an IBM Selectric (the only font our massive scanner could read), with a coil of loosely-rolled punch tape clipped to it with a clothespin.

If I saw that the basket next to one 1100 was filled with obits, and another machine was open, I’d take the other machine. Why? I found obits depressing. Not so much because it was sad that some stranger had died, but because they said so little about the person’s life and character. I would think, This is it? Perhaps the only time this person’s life is summarized in print, and this is all it would say? That seemed to me even more tragic than the death itself.

Part of that was because in those days, obits were a free service offered by a newspaper, handled by the one non-business division of the publication, the newsroom. Funeral homes made money off the obit, but we did not. Since it was free and journalists handled it there was a strictly followed format. You could say this and that, but you couldn’t elaborate — nothing beyond the most simple, straightforward facts.

About 20 years ago, as newspapers’ financial fortunes failed, that changed. Obits were handed off to the advertising department. That meant bereaved families could write the obits themselves and say anything they liked and go on as long as they liked — but they would pay for it, at a steep rate, by the inch.

I was sad to see my industry stop providing that free service, but glad to see some life introduced into these accounts — even though so many of them are poorly written.

It also meant that when I had to write my father’s last month, I had quite a free hand, as long as we were willing to pay for it, which we were.

I wrote it as well as I could, communicating in as dignified a manner as I could my Dad’s life, as a naval officer, as an athlete, as a husband, father, and grandfather. It contained personal color, but since as an amateur genealogist I see these as important historical documents, I wrote it so that anyone in any time would find it appropriate. My fictional friend Jack Aubrey would have found the summation of Dad’s time in the Service perfectly commendable two centuries ago. I hoped it would be helpful to descendants tracing the family tree two centuries in the future.

That’s one way to write an obit. But in this pay-to-play era with all its freedom, there are other ways as well, and some of them are fun to read.

So it is that I pass on one brought to my attention by Stan Dubinsky, who sent it out to his email list with the headline, “Best obit ever: ‘Renay Mandel Corren – A plus-sized Jewish lady redneck died in El Paso on Saturday’.” An excerpt:

Of itself hardly news, or good news if you’re the type that subscribes to the notion that anybody not named you dying in El Paso, Texas is good news. In which case have I got news for you: the bawdy, fertile, redheaded matriarch of a sprawling Jewish-Mexican-Redneck American family has kicked it. This was not good news to Renay Mandel Corren’s many surviving children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom she even knew and, in her own way, loved. There will be much mourning in the many glamorous locales she went bankrupt in: McKeesport, PA, Renay’s birthplace and where she first fell in love with ham, and atheism; Fayetteville and Kill Devil Hills, NC, where Renay’s dreams, credit rating and marriage are all buried; and of course Miami, FL, where Renay’s parents, uncles, aunts, and eternal hopes of all Miami Dolphins fans everywhere, are all buried pretty deep. Renay was preceded in death by Don Shula.

Because she was my mother, the death of zaftig good-time gal Renay Corren at the impossible old age of 84 is newsworthy to me, and I treat it with the same respect and reverence she had for, well, nothing. A more disrespectful, trash-reading, talking and watching woman in NC, FL or TX was not to be found….

It continues, at some length, in the same vein. I encourage you read the whole thing; it might alleviate the boredom of yet another routine Friday for you.

Still, as much as I admire it, I tell myself that the way I wrote my father’s obit was the right way, for him and for me. I’m almost sure of it…

2 thoughts on “Another way to write an obit

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oops. I just realized that the post I linked you to explaining the way newspapers were published in the mid-70s doesn’t work. Apparently, I wrote it and never published it. Huh. It was one of those drafts where I just wrote on and on, and it was getting so long I just stopped. Or something. Here’s another post in which I described the process more briefly.

    If for whatever reason you want the longer explanation, here it is, pulled from the unpublished post:

    We were in a technological transition period. We were still writing with typewriters, but they had to be IBM Selectrics, because when we were done writing, the copy would be fed into a scanner, which was programmed to read the particular font that the IBMs used. The scanner would output a blue paper ticker tape punched full of holes, which we would roll up and attach to the hard copy of the story with a clothespin. (The whole publishing operation was totally dependent on those clothespins.)

    My first job at the paper was on the copy desk. The copy would come from the scan room (yeah, the scanner was so important, and so massive, that it had its own room) and we’d detach the tape from the hard copy and run it through a reader that would translate the holes into text that appeared on the screen of a Harris 1100 word processing computer. We’d clip the original typewritten copy up next to the screen so we could check against it if something had scanned wrong.

    We edited the story on the screen, then when we were done, we’d hit a button that would output a new, edited punchtape. We’d hear this happening noisily inside a drawer down below the console. When the noise stopped, we’d open the drawer (if we opened it before, thousands of little pink bits of paper might spew all over), take one end of the new tape, and wind it up with a little battery-powered handheld device that worked kind of like one of those goofy handheld electric fans.

    Then we’d toss the typed copy into one basket and the new, edited, pink punch tape into another, and periodically someone would take the basket full of tape rolls, held in place as always with clothespins, back to the room that held the gigantic (taller than a man, and just as wide) typesetting computer, which would output the type on long sheets of glossy photographic paper.

    The guys in the composing room would then cut out the columns of type (set to the right widths by the codes we had added on the 1100s) with scissors, run the strips of type through rollers that applied molten wax to the back of the type, and the type would be stuck onto the page. Later, the completed page would be photographed on a giant camera, producing a page-sized negative, which would be used to produce the plate that would go on the press.

    Oh, and here’s what a Harris 1100 looked like. Just to the left of the screen is a spool on which we would place the paper tape to be edited. It fed into the black reader to the left of the spool, and the text came up on the screen. We’d edit the story, then output a new paper tape, which came out inside the orange drawer at the bottom left. When you heard it stop punching out, you would open the drawer, roll up the new tape, and send it back to composing…

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