When I was in school, studying journalism, I used to revile the various exercises I was forced to do in what would be “Journalism 101.” The class itself was fine, I really enjoyed learning the nuances of “triangle storytelling” or how to not bury my lede. However, I hated doing Police Stories and Accident Stories, and most of all I despised obituaries.

I could never get over how impersonal the standard obit felt. “Mr. John Doe, of Anytown, USA, died this past Monday at home of natural causes. He was 75.” I recognize that the rest of the obit is used to highlight the interesting details of Mr. Doe’s life and those he left behind, but come on, how can a person’s life be summed up in 500 words or less? When we finished obits, I was happy to move on.

Fast forward two years.

One of my family members has died. As my family gathers together to mourn the loss, I am called upon to write the obituary. I’d like to say that all of my training from class came flooding back. It didn’t. I’ve never once doubted my skills as a writer until today. How do you sum up a person’s life in 500 words or less?

You can’t.

There is no way to encapsulate the life, personality and spirit of a person by writing about how great they were. Those are things that must be experienced. The written version will only be bland in comparison to the real thing. Even now, I’m struggling to accurately describe how hard it is to write a good obit. It’s just not coming out right.

In the end, I wrote an obituary and a death notice for the newspaper. Do they fulfill the role of explaining the who, what, when, where, why and how? Sure, that’s the easy part. Did they tell you how she lived and loved? Well, that I’m not so sure about.

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