The Beauty of Life Stories, Well Told

I love a well-written obit.

In fact, the obituary section may be why I still subscribe to several newsprint papers, which, unlike their digital cousins, invite me to really read, rather than skim. That’s important when we’re talking mini life stories. Friends, mere acquaintances, total strangers—it doesn’t matter. I want to know what they invented, who they loved, how they made a difference in the world.

As a journalism student I worked at the Boston Globe, initially as a newsroom clerk (we all were called copyboys, even though by the late 1970s some of us were female).

We wrote on these back in the day.

One of my duties was to write basic obits. When person died who was moderately famous (or infamous), at least locally, the city editor would assign whichever copyboy wasn’t otherwise occupied to gather information and write it up.

I wasn’t a reporter yet, but was striving to be, so I paid close attention to the newsroom veterans who wrote the feature obituaries. While theirs may not have been the most exciting beat, they were masters at the craft of condensing someone’s life into a respectful, sometimes funny, often poignant short story, usually on a tight deadline. I eavesdropped sometimes while they asked question after question, mining for the nugget of gold that would explain something essential about the subject’s life.

That’s where I learned the important lesson that I’ve carried over into my crime writing: detail illuminates character.

A memorable example of this is in the 2015 obituary of Leon Gorman, the grandson of L.L.Bean, who transformed that iconic Maine company from an outdoor gear store with fewer than 100 employees to a billion dollar business. His obituary talked about his business success, of course, but also about something he didn’t advertise. For a dozen years, Mr. Gorman was late to work every Wednesday because he spent the early-morning hours at Preble Street in Portland, helping to prepare and serve breakfast to hundreds of homeless folks. That telling detail has stayed with me for years.

A few weeks ago, I was moved by the obit for Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, known as the Godmother of Title IX.  After experiencing sex discrimination in the 1960s when she was told she wouldn’t be considered for a position in academia because she came on too strong for a woman, she became the driving force behind the 1972 law that barred discrimination by educational institutions that received federal funding. Title IX is most often talked about in terms of increasing opportunity for women and girls to play sports, but Bunny Sandler’s determination revolutionized the world of education on every level.

Last week, I read in the Globe about Betty Ballantine, who died at 99. Betty and her husband Ian are credited with introducing America to the paperback novel. Starting in 1939 when she was just 20 years old and he was 23, they began to import quality novels in paperback form—popular in Britain but not in the U.S.—and built the enormous market for which we writers remain grateful. Betty and Ian went on to found Bantam Books and Ballantine Books, both now part of Penguin Random House.

On my website I link to a site called Obit of the Day, an amazing compendium of stories about ordinary and extraordinary people. Readers who share my love for a good life story should hop over there and browse. An example of what you will find: On the day after Christmas in 2012, Fontella Bass, whose song Rescue Me has resonated since it first hit the charts in 1965, died after a lifetime making music. According to her obituary, it is a common misconception that Rescue Me was an Aretha Franklin song. Here’s a link to her obit, if you’d like the rest of that story and a link to the song as well:

So here’s to the obituary writers, who manage to capture something of the essence of a person’s life in a few paragraphs, one of those thankless jobs that deserves a sincere salute.

Blog Readers: Do you read the obits? Why or why not? Please let us know in the comments.

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. She is writing a new series that has as its protagonist a Portland criminal defense lawyer willing to take on cases others won’t touch in a town to which she swore she would never return.

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17 Responses to The Beauty of Life Stories, Well Told

  1. bethc2015 says:

    I don’t necessarily go to the obits as I tend to listen to the news rather than read. However; my husband often passes on obits that he thinks that I will enjoy. I love biographies, and obits are condensed biographies. They are important because they often live in people’s desks and memory books for years. I used to share obits of nurses with my students to demonstrate what an impact nurses can make on people’s lives.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Glad to know you and John share particularly notable obits with each other – Diane and I do that, too. “Condensed biographies” is a great way to describe them, and I’m impressed that you used them to inspire your nursing students. That’s wonderful!

  2. Charlene Clemons says:

    As a genealogist, I read every obituary in the paper looking for a name that might connect to one of my families I work on and often finding a connection. You are right, it is fascinating to read the way the deceased has impacted our world during their lifetime.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      I’m no genealogist, but totally understand how obituaries would be a valuable tool, not only for telling the story of someone’s life but for naming their kin. I sometimes dig into online obit databases in my lawyer job, when I’m working on an estate or an especially convoluted title project. They can be so helpful. Thanks for the comment, Charlene!

  3. I sure do. Both the ones in the print section of the Bangor Daily News and the online ones in the KJ and Sentinel. If it’s someone I know from the past, I usually leave a note about my connection as it helps (I hope) the family know that someone remembers their loved one. You do learn so many interesting things about people by reading their obituaries.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      I’m glad to know others share my habit of reading obits, and not at all surprised, John, that you take it the additional step and leave a comment for the family when you knew the person during their life. Like going to a wake or funeral, that gesture matters a great deal to surviving loved ones.

  4. John Greco says:

    Reblogged this on John Greco Author/Photographer and commented:
    Interesting post from author Brenda Buchanan.

  5. Barbara Ross says:

    I’m an obit reader, too. I love how extraordinary so many people’s lives are. They do things you never think about, but then when you read about them, you think, “of course.” The New York Times has been running belated obituaries of women and people of color who didn’t receive feature obituaries when they died, but who were more than deserving. One of my favorites is of Bette Nesmith Graham who invented liquid paper.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      I love that NYT Overlooked series and read it all the time, but missed this wonderful one. It’s interesting that Bette Nesmith Graham was Mike Nesmith’s mother, but the key detail to me is that that her artist background led to her invention. How great is that?

  6. My mother inspired me to read the obits first! She was a devoted fan of those stories, and we’d have lively conversations about this one or that one from my teenage years and up to her death in 2000. I always marveled to learn about those souls who spent fifty years working for the same company or those fortunate to have traveled the globe. Loved hearing of their large families of five brothers and seven sisters–and their names held great fascination. I remember one obit where a large family’s members’ names all started with “J” !

    And she read the “Births” column, fascinated by what names parents bestow upon their children (or in some cases, burden them with). She reported to me regularly when she had found the funniest baby names like “PregNancy,” “Chlorophyll,”,and “Purple Exodus.” Really! Mom also loved reading tombstones and had several books about them. Her favorite inscription was “I TOLD you I was sick!”

    An obit reader is kind of Peeping Tom. Legal? Yes! Curious? yes! Morbid? Heck, no! We are merely fascinated with others’ lives and stories. Maybe we even live vicariously through them. Add to that a love of language and an ear for a good yarn. My mother would agree. Before she died we talked about what she wanted in her obit. “Please don’t write that I passed away after a courageous battle with cancer! There was nothing courageous about it,” she told me. “Just say that I loved my kids and my cats.”

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I’m with you – there’s nothing morbid about reading obituaries. Like you, I especially enjoy those written by people with “a love of language and an ear for a good yarn.” Your mother sounds remarkable,BTW.

  7. Kate Flora says:

    I still remember being fascinated by the obit of the man who had the vision to revive the Old Port. I always wonder about the people who are the “doers” in this world. Once, while teaching, as a way to introduce class members to each other, I had them write obituaries for themselves. It was fascinating, but I decided not to do it again. I often read them, both in the local papers and in papers when we’re traveling, and my brother John sends me some of people we knew. When my mother died, I was surprised at how eager her publisher was to write her obituary, it was his way of saying how much he admired her.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Absolutely, Kate. An obituary is a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to someone you admired, and your mother’s publisher surely held her in high esteem.

  8. Jack Graham says:

    There is beauty and magic in a well-recounted story. Fiction scholars have the advantage of creating whatever they need into a story, however shouldn’t something be said about real-life stories? As a homeschooler I’m generally watchful for approaches to help leave a mark on the world energizing, intriguing, and applicable to our young students.

  9. Great post, Brenda. My husband and I have always read the obits. He’s a lawyer and does it specifically to make sure one of his clients has died. I do it for the names and the stories. I haven’t gone on line and posted anything as suggested above, but I may consider doing that now. Sadly, we’re down to just taking the Sunday paper, but will certainly continue to peruse the obits. I’m planning on writing my own and getting all that “funeral” stuff set up this year. We’ve had some sudden deaths of friends that made me realize we don’t know when our time is over and I want to make it easier on our daughters. I shared. 🙂

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks, Marsha! In addition to being a writer I’m a lawyer (in real life, I sometimes say) and I strongly endorse “getting all that funeral stuff set up.” It;’s such a kindness to your loved ones to think your wishes through long before the need arises.

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