At my first college internship, I worked on the Obit Desk at a large metro newspaper North of Boston. From the perspective of a twenty-year-old, the job was the worst: the hours were bad (I had to be there by 6 am and it was a 40-minute drive from my Boston apartment), my supervisor was unfriendly, and my work (fact-checking obituaries) was uninspiring. Occasionally I would encounter an obituary that was interesting, and written with care—but the majority seemed to be routine catalogues of the basic biographical details of one’s lives. Sure, space came at a premium—submissions were billed by the line—but I often wondered why these remembrances didn’t try harder. There are likely many reasons that obituaries do not evidence literary flourish. Families and loved ones, exhausted from long illnesses or shocked by sudden deaths may lack the time and energy to memorialize the departed with anything more than the basics. Family connections and service times. But for each of those basic markers, there was an individual and interesting life that has a story.
When my grandmother died a few years back, I wrote her obituary. After my long ago stint at the obit desk, I knew what I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to give readers that happened upon the entry a glimpse of who she really was, that is, though “Known to her many friends as Marge, she took great pleasure in answering to her other names: Mom, Gramma, and Great-Gramma” and to get a sense of how much she was cherished, “Her granddaughters fondly remember her as one who taught them grandmotherly things like baking and needlework (at both of which she was an expert) but also as someone who would serve M&Ms for breakfast, buy them their first lipsticks, and animatedly chat long distance when they phoned home from college. They both considered her an important friend and confidante.”
It was the most important thing I was ever tasked with writing.
Elissa Ely also knows how important these stories are. She writes The Remembrance Project for WBUR, for which she composes short essays based on the lives of individuals nominated by a loved one. If you haven’t followed this series yet, I highly recommend it—it is quite moving. This week’s piece on Lawrence Dorey had me in tears as a listened to its audio version on the radio. Each essay is beautifully done, but this one stuck with me (I think it was the mention of his connection with his granddaughter that got me).