Writing on Another Art: “Editing Obituaries”

I’m interested in what it’s like to write or to make kinds of things that I’ve never written or made before. Sometimes it’s the other art itself that fascinates, sometimes it’s seeing how the writer attempts to recreate in writing the experience of that other art.

Today that other art was the obituary, specifically Jnana Hodson writing about his experiences writing and editing obits.

There’s no room for error in the work, of course, or else families remember, their teeth on edge for decades. The work is repetitive–after all, the most important fact in every story is precisely the same. Family members submit manuscripts chockablock with illegible penmanship, factual errors, emotional whitewashing, outright deception, sap, and cliche. The tension in tone between elevated eulogy and bare-knuckles journalism is constant. Families want one sort of thing (a life story, a pleasant memory, the appearance of respectability), the audience of the morning paper want another (time and date of the memorial and maybe an offbeat or salacious detail), and future genealogists need still another (the place of birth, say, down to the name of the hospital).

Not much writing is as simple or straightforward while it’s happening as it becomes when it is finished, and this seems especially true of obituary. Still, writing obits comes across here as a workmanlike–a craftsmanlike–experience, and one that’s entirely absorbing to read about.

Please, read the whole essay at Jnana’s Red Barn.