Writing ‘the Deads’ with a Deadline

26 August 2019

Göran R Buckhorn

HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn watches a documentary where a dead oarsman plays an important part.

As a young man, fresh out of university, I managed to land a position at a small publishing company in my hometown of Malmö in the south of Sweden. I started out as an editorial assistant, which meant I proofread texts, wrote captions for illustrations, blurbs for books and read manuscripts (which we didn’t publish), etc. I soon rose in the ranks to editor, and with that I was given more responsibility of certain books.

One of the books that the company published was an annual yearbook called ANNO. In ANNO, we published articles about what had happened during the year, not only in Sweden but also in the rest of the world. There were articles about politics, wars and conflicts, major sports events, the environment, science, culture, obituaries, you name it.

ANNO had once been co-published with one of the major Swedish newspapers, but when the paper jumped ship, the company where I was working decided to publish it on its own. While some of the articles were written by editors working at the publishing company, the editor for ANNO also looked for experts in different fields to cover all the subjects for a year. I dare to say that many of Sweden’s sharpest pens wrote articles for ANNO from time to time.

Obit writer Buckhorn

In early January one year, soon after I had been appointed editor, ANNO editor Madeleine Stevelius, a brilliant editor who had an equally sharp tongue as a pen, smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper, called me in to her office. She asked me if I could write the obituary section in ANNO? Me, an obit writer? I said yes right away. ‘I will take care of “the Deads”,’ as we called them.

Writing ‘the Deads’ was the least glamorous section to write in the yearbook, but, in any case, I was given an assignment where I was going to write, not only proofread and correct what other writers and authors had written.

Obituary writing was otherwise something that belonged at newspapers. ‘Obit writers were kids starting out [working for papers] and old-timers winding down,’ wrote Jim Nicholson, who was the obituary page writer for The Philadelphia Daily News from 1982 until 2001. Nicholson, who died in February this year, was an interesting man, who sometimes ‘disappeared’ for months from the paper. What he did during these months absent from The Philadelphia Daily News was revealed in the obituary on him published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Despite his ‘secret life and job’ away from the paper, Nicholson wrote:

In fact, the almost two decades when I wrote the obit page for The Philadelphia Daily News might have been the best job of any kind I ever had.

So, I was the ‘kid’ editor at the publishing company, reading several newspapers a day, listening to news on the radio, watching TV news every evening to not miss Swedish or foreign Deads. Of course, writing obituaries can seem macabre or a little morbid, but I really enjoyed writing the obits, shorter pieces and longer ones, which is more to celebrate a person’s life than writing about their death. And you learn how to write.

I came to think about my early writing life as an obit writer when I watched a brilliant and funny (!) documentary the other day on Amazon (also available on YouTube for US$3.99), Obit. Life on Deadline (2016/2017; running 95 minutes), directed by Vanessa Gould and starring the small staff of obituary writers at The New York Times, among them Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox and William McDonald. We follow how this band of obit writers decide who is going to get an obituary in the newspaper, how long it’s going to be, how to collect information about the dead person (calling the family and friends, digging in the paper’s morgue files); unless the deceased person is so famous that there is a written piece already in the file cabinet with ‘advances’ – obits which are written before a person dies.

Read the synopsis of Obit. and the critical reception of the documentary here.

Watch a trailer for the documentary here:

In the trailer, for a couple of seconds, we see John Fairfax, who rowed for six months alone across the Atlantic in 1969. He arrived on the shore of Hollywood, Florida, on 19 July, and on 20 July this year, the good people of Hollywood celebrated the 50th anniversary of Fairfax’s solo row. According to the local paper in town, the Hollywood Gazette, the first words Fairfax uttered when he arrived – tanned, tired and about 20 pounds lighter than when he had left – ‘This was bloody stupid.’

Here is an interview with him after his row across the Atlantic:

When Fairfax died in February 2012, it was Margalit Fox, of The New York Times’s obituary staff, who was assigned to write his obit. In the documentary, she tells how she collected the material and realised what a remarkable adventurer he had been – at age 9, he settled an argument with a fellow boy scout by firing a pistol at the hut where the boy and the rest of the scouts were sleeping (yes, Fairfax got expelled from the scouts); at 13, he was living in the Amazon jungle like Tarzan; at 20, he tried to commit suicide ‘by jaguar’ in the jungle (when the animal attacked him, he changed his mind and killed it with his gun); and became an apprentice to a pirate, etc, etc. Fox’s obituary was pure entertainment and changed the way The New York Times reported about the dead, Fox says.

Margalit Fox in “Obit.”

Here The New York Times was far behind the British The Daily Telegraph, which hired Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd as obituary editor in 1986 (he left the obit editorialship in 1994). Massingberd – who dropped Montgomery hyphen because his byline was too long – totally re-styled the short, dull and dry death notices and filled his obituaries with anecdotes and minor funny details about the deceased, almost always with respect. When he died in 2007, at age 60, his own obituary in The Telegraph ran close to 4,100 words! In 2016, The Telegraph published a celebration article about 30 years of The Telegraph’s obituaries, read it here.

HTBS also publishes obituaries to celebrate the lives of many rowers, including John Fairfax. We write about the dead, so they can live on, if you excuse the bad pun.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot, after a few years writing the obits for ANNO, I was appointed editor for the whole yearbook.

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