Saturday, November 7, 2009

Great Writing Where You Least Expect It

By Mark Arsenault, guest blogger

One of the tragedies of the decline of American newspapers is the decline of the obituary. The classic obit—treated as a news story and written by a member of the newspaper’s staff—is all but dead. In its place, many newspapers are selling obituaries as advertisements. So when Uncle Elmo passes, the five-grand price tag on the funeral may include about seven hundred bucks for obit space in the newspaper.

I wrote a zillion obituaries throughout my 20-year journalism career, and I’ve come to appreciate that obits are the most important part of the newspaper because every death changes a community, forever. That’s why the protagonist in my current mystery series, the world-weary Billy Povich, is not a hotshot
investigative reporter, but a lowly obituary writer. Billy’s occupation helps set the tone for the story and defines Billy’s character—he believes a well-researched obituary is a way to pay respect for the dead. He goes out of his way to find the telling details about people he never met. As he says in the book, “The dead do not complain, but who says they don’t appreciate good service?”

In real life, guys like Billy are going out of business.

I cut my teeth in the newspaper business believing that every person should be mentioned in the newspaper at least three times: at birth, marriage and death. (When you’re hatched, matched and dispatched.)

One of the most important contributions to the national psyche after 9/11 were the obits of the victims that ran for months in the New York Times. These obits were so beautifully crafted; it was hard to read them without getting choked up.

A well-crafted obit also contains valuable lessons for
writers. The ability to render a person in three dimensions with just a few words is a tremendous skill, and something every fiction writer has to learn.

I love this paragraph from an award-winning 2007 obit of a carnival performer named Don Leslie:

“He had gotten his first tattoo not long after running away from home. Many more would come. His chest displayed three horse heads surrounded by a lariat and flanked by draping American flags, while his back depicted a shipwrecked damsel shown before a setting sun and an oversized stone cross bearing the words ROCK OF AGES. Each elbow sported a spider’s web, while a panoply of cherubs, hula girls, and elephants adorned whatever bare skin was left.”

When I read that incredible description, the character bursts into my mind. I see him as clearly as my most recent memory of my morning waffles. I’m inspired by the writing, and by the research that went into assembling that paragraph.

By turning obituaries into a revenue source, newspapers gave up quality control over what goes in them—you don’t tell your advertisers what to write. That has led to some oddities. At one of the newspapers I worked for, a customer bought an official obit-ad for Pope John Paul II, which dutifully ran in the paper under “Out-of-Town Obituaries.” The paper’s policy was to run nicknames in quotes, so the departed pontiff became “Pope” John Paul.

And I’ve noticed that a new trend among these obit-ads is to avoid the verb “died.” Instead of dying, the deceased has “moved on to receive his eternal reward.”

That just sounds a little cocky to me.

There are still a few places to find good obituaries, and I’ll keep mining them for nuggets of great writing, and for inspiration.

Mark Arsenault is a Shamus-nominated mystery writer, a journalist, a runner, hiker, political junkie and eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His new novel is Loot the Moon, the second book in the Billy Povich series that began with Gravewriter, a noir thriller praised for a fusion of suspense, humor and human tenderness. With 20 years of experience as a print reporter, Arsenault is one of those weird cranks who still prefers to read the news on paper. His Web site is


Anonymous said...

I love obits, too, Mark. I find myself sometimes thinking that a person's "eternal reward" might be the less pleasant alternative than his relatives imagined, though.

Nancy Martin

Barbara D'Amato said...

Hi, Mark--Great to meet you at Bouchercon. This is an excellent post. I regret the end of good obits. too.

Judy Alter said...

Our Fort Worth TX newspaper, the Star-Telegram, still does obits on a few people it considers interesting, but most are the paid-for kind with "gone to eternal rest" and similar phrases. Still, it leaves one wondering if you'll merit an article when you "pass over" and not just whatever your family can pay for. Part of the horrible decline of our newspaper and countless others.

Sheila328 said...

Obituaries can be a priceless resource for genealogists, since they often list surviving relatives. Or not--I remember once reading the obituary for Nicholas Biddle, the Philadelphia financier who largely funded the American Revolution, and most of the obituary discussed the route the funeral procession had taken to the cemetery. Not a word about the man's achievements.

On the other hand, someone on another loop just circulated a lovely 19th-century Irish obituary that described everything the deceased carried in his pockets. Go figure.

But if you manage to get an obituary published, google will make you immortal.

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